Jul 9, 2012

To Rome With Lull

by Thomas Willett
2:00pm PST, July 9, 2012

With many of Woody Allen’s current movies being shot in Europe, he has adapted the standard neurotic protagonist into a cultured traveler. There are long shots of architecture while they walk around discussing art and classic literature. These have become some of Allen’s most known tropes, but they certainly lead him to an Oscar winning script in Midnight in Paris. With his movie a year quota, it is acceptable that he has done every story before, just as long as he provides a twist. In To Rome with Love, he attempts to take an ensemble to Rome to discover what it is about the Eternal City that is so majestic. Does he have another success on his hands, or is this great cast too much of a good thing?

The entire story is pieced together by a Traffic Policeman (Pierluigi Marchionne), who serves as an entrance. The problem with this character is that he doesn’t serve a purpose other than to usher the crowd in and out of the film. He doesn’t narrate more than a few lines and is inconsequential to anyone’s actual story. This already feels like a lazy device to excuse the incongruence of the multiple stories that never overlap and rarely feature similar themes other than living in Rome. Everything to come feels like a grab bag of familiar Woody Allen tropes mixed with clever wit, awkward humor, and discussions of opera and architecture.

Even when he fails to make a solid narrative work, he does manage to keep some charm in his films. His voice is always present and this is prominent in that there are five Woody Allen stock surrogates, including Allen himself. They vary on levels of neuroticism and culture, but they all talk in the familiar fashion. The best surrogate is Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), who somehow becomes famous for being famous. He adds a bumbling physicality that has been missed from Allen’s films for quite a while now. His story feels like the most fleshed out, as it features some great gags and a solid commentary on the state of celebrity. He recalls these themes in a way that Allen hasn’t done since the 90’s.

The rest of the cast have their moments, but become hit and miss. Newlywed Milly’s (Alessandra Mastronardi) involves her getting lost only to meet her favorite Italian filmmakers. This could have been similar to Leopoldo’s story, but evolves into an affair with a movie star. The problem with the women in this movie is that they are varying degrees of secondary. Anna (Penelope Cruz) is a prostitute who feels created just to be used for escort jokes. Hayley (Allison Pill) is wasted as Jerry’s (Allen) daughter who only serves as contradiction to his plans to make her father-in-law Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) into an opera singer who only performs in a shower.

The only character that feels somewhat established is Monica (Ellen Page), who is a movie star that falls for Jack (Jesse Eisenberg). Why this probably works is because she is most in line with the Allen surrogates without being one. She likes all of the familiar things, but has a jaded sense to her that causes Jack’s friend John (Alec Baldwin) to provide inspired commentary on her surface level knowledge of everything. While the story itself is also about infidelity for Jack between Monica and Sally (Greta Gerwig), Allen proves that he still has clever ways to share his thoughts.

If the film has any flaws, it is that it feels too busy. With so many stories with varying degrees of payoff, it becomes underwhelming to sit through them all. For every one that feels like Allen has something to say, there is one that feels meandering and more so pointless. While it is discussed through dialogue, the actual city of Rome feels useless to the overall story. It is mostly referenced as a city of mazes and old architecture. It gives good talking points, but doesn’t have the necessity that Allen brought to New York in films like Manhattan.

The simple way to have improved the movie would be to have made it into segments similar to New York Stories. This would have solved the issue that runs through the film of each story interrupting the pacing of the other. There are many inspired gags in here, and while Allen’s anti-Communist character feels like a lift from Crimes and Misdemeanors, there are some interesting characters individually. As a whole, they feel monotonous, very thick headed and ignorant to lower class ideals. With a great cast, Allen’s ambition fails to capture a perfect picture of what makes the city wonderful. This is a tolerable, if long, effort that shows that Allen still can write good characters and scenarios. Hopefully he’ll figure out how to use them more effectively in an overall plot next time.

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