After a career resurgence with the Oscar-baited fluke Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s continental cruise across Europe sees him back in familiarly disappointing territory with To Rome With Love. His seventh film set in picture-postcard Europe, it’s a set of four unconnected vignettes serving up the schmaltzy themes of love, lust and celebrity, minus the laughs.
From the very opening scene, To Rome With Love wreaks of amateur hour. An affable cop halts the traffic on a busy Romany junction to address the camera directly. With the cliché sounds of “Volare” in the background, our humble narrator introduces the film’s four tales. Aside from a few pithy lines and crude character arcs, each story is as tedious and meandering as the next; so caught up in the capital’s ineffable charm and romanticism that Allen fails to give us anything worthy of interest.
First up is the gap-year American tourist Hayley (Alison Pill), who falls in love with local Romani hunk Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Planning on getting hitched, Hayley’s parents jet over to meet the future in-laws. Her mother is Phyllis (Judy David), a liberal psychiatrist who has a remarkable patience for her neurotic husband and former opera director Jerry (Woody Allen, in his first acting role since 2006′s equally bad Scoop). When Jerry overhears Michelangelo’s father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) singing beautifully operatic arias in the shower, he sees his ticket back into the big time. But there’s a problem, Giancarlo’s talent can only be achieved when under soapsuds and flowing water. Predictably, it all culminates in several excruciatingly long opera-shower scenes, with Woody looking lost throughout.
Out with the old and in with the new, naïve newlyweds Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi) arrive in Rome to live la dolce vita. But soon after they check-in to a hotel, the pair lose each other by accident. Roaming the streets alone and apparently incapable of asking for directions to the hotel, she stumbles onto a film-set and gets caught up with a lustrous movie star (Antonio Albanese). Similarly sex-fuelled, Antonio’s hotel room is invaded by the paid in advance prostitute Anna (Penelope Cruz) who he passes off as his real wife to family and potential employers. Told in the native tongue, it’s the most rampant and engaging frolic Woody has on offer, with Cruz clearly relishing the role as the scantily clad lady in red.
Back in tourist territory, Alec Baldwin plays John, an esteemed American architect revisiting the cobbled streets of his youth some thirty years ago. Roaming Rome, he crosses paths with budding architecture student Jack (played by eternal man-boy Jesse Eisenberg). The story turns semi-magical when John is lasciviously omnipresent as Jack’s subconscious, trying to convince him not to cheat on his sweet girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) with her visiting best friend Monica (Ellen Page). Although this may be To Rome with Love’s most dynamic story, it’s a master-class in miscasting. Gerwig is underused, Eisenberg is too one dimensional to play a young Woody Allen type, Baldwin isn’t given enough space to flaunt his naturally comedic talent and Ellen Page is far too twee to play a character once described as a “man-magnet”.
Last and most definitely least, Roberto Benigni is local schlub Leopoldo who leaves work one morning to find himself caught in paparazzi frenzy. His unaccountable rise to stardom is mundane, with reporters desperate to know what he had for breakfast that day, how did he get that stain on his shirt and what kind of underwear he is wearing. With Allen drawing influence from Italian neorealist Federico Fellini, Benigni tries to animate the well-worn, dreamy material, but seeing Leopoldo’s titillating sexual escapades with gorgeous women is irrevocably creepy.
Shot with the same vibrancy found in Midnight in Paris by cinematographer Darius Khondji, it’s a shame that such warmth didn’t carry over to Allen’s insipid, almost entirely humorless script.
Often applauded for his rigorous one film a year work ethic, such a quick turnaround means that so many of his recent films feel like both a waste of decent narrative ideas, and a waste of impressive ensemble casts who are also desperate for that “I’ve worked with Woody Allen” accolade on their CVs.
After Jerry’s wet, operatic megastar wows crowds in his production of Pagliacci, he reads a snippet of a critic’s review claiming: “whoever created this monstrosity should be beheaded”. Although decapitation may be a little strong, one wishes that the 76-year-old would take a year out to wind down with his psychiatrist, listen to some jazz records and come back with Manhattan 2 in 2014. We all know he still has the ability to make one more great film; it’s only Allen now that still needs convincing.