Woody Allen, perhaps the most “New York” of all filmmakers, has spent much of the past decade cavorting around Europe, camera crew and star casts in tow.
Though the resulting movies have not all been winners (case in point: “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”), the continent has, at times, proven to be fertile ground for the director: Who can forget the blade-like precision and unexpected sexiness of the London-set “Match Point”? The lusciously captured locales and messy romantic entanglements of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”? Or “Midnight in Paris”, with its flights of comic fantasy and rueful meditation on nostalgia?
In his new film, “To Rome With Love”, Allen sets his sights on yet another Old World metropolis, and all the pieces look to be in place: an attractive international ensemble, golden-hued cinematography that makes you want to book your ticket to the Italian capital immediately, and a story full of characters – both tourists and locals – who fall in and out of love, trade neurotic barbs, and find themselves ensnared in absurd situations.
How disappointing, then, that “To Rome With Love” turns out to be not only the most lackluster of Allen’s European efforts – but one of the weakest entries in the prolific director’s vast and often brilliant body of work.
‘Going native’ and coming up empty-handed
This is a Woody Allen film – which means that even at its least inspired things amble along pleasingly enough, thanks to a handful of sharp one-liners and some beautifully framed performers and locations. But rarely has one of his movies been so overstuffed with tired subplots and bland characters, and never have his beloved themes – complications of love and desire, fatalism, anxiety, ambition and life choices – felt so lazily recycled and superficially explored.
The most engaging of four intercut but unrelated storylines are about Americans in Rome. In one, a young architect (Jesse Eisenberg of “The Social Network) falls for his sweet girlfriend’s best friend, a hyper-articulate, narcissistic bisexual actress played by Ellen Page in the film’s most pungent performance. In the other, an aging opera director (played by Woody Allen himself) arrives in Rome with his wife to meet their daughter’s Italian fiancé, and ends up trying to turn the young man’s father into a star tenor. How exactly he goes about doing that makes for the film’s one truly original idea and its most poignant and amusing scene.
If Woody Allen had focused on those two narrative strands, “To Rome with Love” might have been a charming trifle about American tourists under the spell of longstanding Italian traditions of love and art. But the filmmaker overplays his hand by trying to “go native”, devoting half of his movie to broadly painted Italian characters whom he all but drowns in heavy-handed farce. Roberto Benigni shows up as a middle-class civil servant who inexplicably ends up a reality TV phenomenon, and a pair of rural newlyweds find their urban excursion disrupted by a sleazy film star and a call girl (played in full Mediterranean bombshell mode by Penelope Cruz).
The film’s Italian-language segments play like vague retreads of Fellini (one of Allen’s favourite directors) – the paparazzi swarming Benigni’s character are straight out of “La Dolce Vita”, while the country couple led astray by big-city temptation is a nod to the Italian director’s first film, “The White Sheik” – only without the wit, lyricism and undercurrent of despair. Allen is sending up Italy’s celebrity obsession (and exploring the Madonna-whore complex that seems to transcend cultural boundaries), but the satirical targets are so obvious and his strokes are so caricatural that one struggles to muster even a smile.
A superfluous Roman holiday?
After an advance screening of “To Rome With Love” in Italy in April, Italian critics accused the director of relying on cultural stereotypes to portray their country. That’s not a problem in and of itself; “Midnight in Paris” was about the image that Americans project onto the French capital and its dwellers, while “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” turned on the clash between traditional American and European conceptions of life, love and pleasure. The latter film also featured exaggerated Southern European archetypes – Javier Bardem’s Latin lothario and Penelope Cruz’s passionate firecracker – written and played with such unabashed verve that it was hard not to go along with the joke.
But as sun-kissed, sensual and appealingly chaotic as Woody Allen’s Rome appears, the filmmaker never gets his hooks in the city. He doesn’t exalt its beauty to the extent that he did with Paris, nor does he portray its charms as potentially life-changing as he did in Barcelona, or cast a coolly sardonic eye on its social customs as in his London movies. Allen essentially dumbs down Rome and the people in it. Indeed, many of the usual Woody Allen figures – anxiety-prone intellectuals, charismatic but restless femme fatales, true-blue ingénues – are present in both American and Italian incarnations, but they’re more sketchily drawn than usual and the dialogue doesn’t sparkle or snap the way it should.
“To Rome With Love” leaves one with the unfortunate impression that the Italian capital was a somewhat superfluous stop on Allen’s European tour – and that Allen knocked this film off without much thought or effort. The director is set to start shooting his next movie in San Francisco and New York this summer. Let’s hope his homecoming is a fruitful one.