Not since John Singleton’s Abduction has a title lied to us on the level of To Rome With Love. Much like how the horrendous Taylor Lautner action film never contained an actual abduction, Woody Allen’s latest directorial effort is far from a love letter to Rome and is, in fact, quite the opposite: it shows that the Italian city can be just as generic and dull as anywhere else.
A multi-narrative comedy, the film follows a number of people as they experience life in Rome. Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) is a young man who begins to fall in love with his girlfriend’s best friend, Monica (Ellen Page), and is warned against it by a reappearing mentor (Alec Baldwin). Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) is an ordinary, blue-collar man who one day wakes up to discover that he is the biggest celebrity in the city. Jerry (Allen) is a retired-and-hating-it opera director who discovers that his daughter’s soon-to-be-father-in-law, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), is a brilliant singer who can only show off his talent in the shower. Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are a young, recently married couple who, upon moving to the capital get separated and end up having entanglements with a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) and a famous actor (Antonio Albanese), respectively.
There isn’t a single story in To Rome With Love that couldn’t be just as well told or even better told in a city like Los Angeles or New York. A good number of the stories deal with the notion of and obsession with celebrity, which is a major cultural epidemic in America, but Allen fails to put a spin on it that makes us understand why Italy is being used as the backdrop. The idea of culture shock is barely explored, as almost all of the characters – including the Americans – have been living in the city for a long time. Only Milly appears lost in the Eternal City, but the audience is separated from her experience by the fact that she only speaks Italian.
To Rome With Love feels as though it was constructed from the pages of a tiny notebook that sits on Allen’s bedside table so that he can write down ideas that occur to him in the middle of the night. All four stories feel underdeveloped and are mostly filler, be it the multiple scenes of Jack fighting against his growing feelings for Monica, Leopoldo repeatedly being mobbed by paparazzi or Jerry trying to convince Giancarlo to sing. The whole thing is held together with loose strings and vague themes (like the aforementioned note about celebrity), which makes it feel less like a feature and than a series of short films that have been cut up and spliced together. The movie is well edited and doesn’t confuse the audience as it cuts back and forth between stories, but absorbing the film as a whole the pieces just don’t fit well together.
Lazy as the movie is, it does feature the occasional flash that keeps the audience engaged and laughing. True to form, Allen gives himself the best part in the movie and while it’s the same neurotic Jew shtick that he has used in every decade of his career, it still has a timeless, charming quality that will always make me smile. And though her part is far too small, Cruz, who won an Oscar working with Allen on Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is terrific as the sassy working girl who is not only forced to pretend to be Antonio’s reserved wife, but also must stay undercover around Antonio’s bosses/previous clients. The interesting dynamic at play between Eisenberg and Baldwin deserves not to be spoiled, but is also quite clever and well-handled.
To Rome With Love possesses the same quirkiness that Allen has had for his entire career and even peppers the movie little Woody-isms like “Ozymandias Melancholia,” but it all amounts to very little. The filmmaker will forever be known as one of cinema’s greatest storytellers, but his latest simply feels lazy.