Woody Allen makes a feature film every year, without fail, all of them outside of the studio system. And here's what a superfan I am: I've made a point to see all 44 of them. Since Vicky Cristina Barcelona from 2008, he's been on a real winning streak, culminating in last year's surprise hit Midnight in Paris. But alas, they can't all be winners. His latest, To Rome With Love, is not a good film, and it's a shame, because the story has potential. It features a lot of good actors who haven't been given anything interesting to say. The plot engages in some neat ideas, halfheartedly. The script feels like a rough draft.
Spoiler alert: the movie is set in Rome and there are four interweaving stories. The first concerns Hayley (Alison Pill), who meets a handsome Italian named Michelangelo. They get engaged and, what do you know, Woody Allen and Judy Davis play her parents, who fly in to meet the in-laws. Some stuff happens having to do with Michelangelo's father, who sings beautifully in the shower, but how to transfer his talent onto the stage?
In the second story, Roberto Benigni is an ordinary clerk named Leopoldo who is inexplicably swarmed by the paparazzi and made famous. He tells reporters what he ate for breakfast and sleeps with beautiful women two at a time and, oh, isn't fame arbitrary, fleeting and intrusive? There's a newlywed couple, Milly and Antonio (Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi), who come to Rome for an important business deal, until circumstances split them up and send them off to have adulterous adventures. Penelope Cruz shows up as the wise hooker, and there's an Italian film actor on hand to illustrate the pros and cons of sleeping with the stars. Both this and the Benigni sequences are subtitled and have the quaint feeling of a foreign film, which I guess this sort of is.
The most promising storyline features an architect named Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) in what has come to be called the "young Woody Allen" role. He's dating Sally (Greta Gerwig), but then Monica (Ellen Page) comes into town and, uh oh, "There's just something about her." She's one of those women who talks frankly about sex and expresses whimsy by dancing through Roman ruins in the rain. Alec Baldwin floats onto the scene as an architect whom Jack idolizes. Without giving too much away, Baldwin's character interacts with the story on a weird and satisfying meta-level. He can see the train wreck between Jack and Monica on the horizon, tries to warn them and then stands around watching the players make all the wrong moves anyway. This is a glimpse of the Woody Allen we know and love.
Still. Go back and watch Allen's 2003 film Anything Else, with its nearly identical plot premise and starring Jason Biggs as young Woody Allen and Christina Ricci as the seductress, and you'll see what you're missing. The story is done better in Anything Else because the characters have more room to stretch out; they're more complex. To Rome With Love is like the CliffsNotes version of characters we've come to know from his stronger movies, and it's just not as much fun.
This is the first time Allen has acted in one of his films since Scoop (a similarly underwhelming movie), back in 2006. It's always delightful to see him on screen, but why did he wait so long only to write himself such a lackluster part? Judy Davis as Allen's psychiatrist wife is back to life from the '90s and kills it, same as ever.
The stories are held together by a vague theme having to do with celebrity. We want to make love to celebrities. To be a celebrity is a burden but also addicting. Ellen Page as Monica is more in love with herself than other people. What's interesting about that is, who cares?
In Manhattan (1979), on the subject of orgasms, Allen's character says, "I've never had the wrong kind, ever. My worst one was right on the money." Does this logic apply to his films? My least favorite Woody Allen movie is Hollywood Ending (2002), an insipid sludgefest filled with truly lame jokes, dumb actors and dumb ideas, and even so, there are some good moments in it. I'll say this: To Rome With Love is slightly better than Hollywood Ending.
To Rome With Love continues at the Wilma Theatre.