Coming off of his fourth Academy Award for the wonderful Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen attempts once again to catch that European lightning in a bottle with To Rome with Love. Unfortunately for him, comparisons to his last film are inevitable, making the fact that To Rome doesn't measure up to the quality of the writing, story, dialogue, or even humor in Paris all the more noticeable. Even still, this is a Woody Allen film, and a "bad" Allen film is like a "bad" Pixar film - in other word, it's still leagues ahead of most its peers in the genre.
Instead of the more concise, poignant story as he usually tells, Allen chooses to work four short stories together in conveyance of the magical nature of the ancient city of Rome. This decision ends up backfiring as it often does in films like this, though, as whatever message he is trying to get across is lost amongst the glib, ephemeral, and altogether depthless collection of vignettes. Despite the fact that every story sports charming leads who work admirably with their fellow cast members, the narratives ultimately fall short of any significant meaning.
Perhaps the biggest pitfall is that none of the tales seem to have anything to do with one another. The disconnected, staccato feeling of the plot will lead many to wonder if Allen had a few ideas kicking around for a film but didn't flesh any of them out enough to warrant their own feature-length running time. This in comp
The similarly-structured Love Actually, as sickeningly sweet as it is, makes much more of an effort to illustrate its core message through each of its tales. Moreover, Love Actually constantly alludes to other stories and reminds the audience that what they are seeing is all part of a contiguous universe. In To Rome, there is absolutely no interconnectedness and so immersion falls by the wayside.
Even on a fundamental level, none of these stories really work like they should. For example, Leopoldo (Benigni)'s story suffers for its more fantastical tale of an ordinary man who is suddenly a celebrity. Midnight in Paris utilized similar fantastical elements well, weaving them into the fabric of the overarching narrative - the audience could accept them because the singular focus of the plot drew us in. Here, any of the more over-the-top aspects feel out of place or jarring because some of the stories are much more grounded in reality than others.
The vignette starring Jack (Eisenberg), Monica (Page), Sally (Gerwig), and John (Baldwin) starts off strong, but comes to no discernible conclusion; by the end I was simply confused by what was going on onscreen. Perhaps on its own, if I had the entire movie to really focus on a core message, the past/present concept would have scenes could have hit home. Unfortunately, Allen relies entirely on an untenable technique he's used in past films like Annie Hall, inserting a future version of a character into a past situation to emphasize the old idiom "hindsight is 20-20." While it has its place in a broader context of a feature-length movie, this vignette would suggest that the gimmick in and of itself cannot successfully support a story.
Similarly, the honeymooners Antonio (Tiberi) and Milly (Mastronardi), Luca Salta the actor (Albanese), and Anna the prostitute (Cruz) work well together in a mistaken identity story about a couple on their honeymoon. Raising interesting points about the hypocrisy of the upper class and prudish nature of so many newlyweds, this vignette almost hits home its whimsical tone and lighthearted gags. Like the other stories, though, the tale of these lovebirds lacks any strong ending, making the whole affair feel shallow and unnecessary.
The story of Jerry (Allen), his wife Phyllis (Davis), their daughter Hayley (Pill), her boyfriend Michelangelo (Parenti), and his father Giancarlo (Armiliato), suffers from both of these issues - it is overtly silly while delivering no emotional punch to drive it home. The seeds of a contemplative investigation of a mid-life crisis are certainly present, but are never given room to breathe. In place of that, visual jokes and some dependable neurosis from Allen are forced to carry the plot along.
While Allen's writing and directing periodically shines through, dialogue is often cringe-worthy - something that I would never normally associate with his usual films. His typically strong performance works well, however, as he plays the father of a young woman who has fallen in love in the heart of Rome. Similarly, Alec Baldwin gives his standard dry delivery of often-times clever lines, Ellen Page is deadpan as ever, and Penélope Cruz smokes up the screen. All in all, the star-studded ensemble cast is just as charming as you might expect.
I think that at this point, many see Allen for what he is: a comedian. As such, he serves to cut through the nonsense of society to comment directly on its core values in a light, humorous manner. So why is that he adheres so closely to the silly tropes of so many romcoms, where in the past he deconstructed the typical onscreen relationship so well? He even fell prey to one of his most fundamental pet peeves - outright pretentiousness. In both Annie Hall and Midnight in Paris, Allen did a superb job of mocking the bourgeoisie - yet here, name-dropping is rampant as architects, poets, operas, writers are all rattled off by the characters like it's some sort of common knowledge.
To Rome with Love is hardly a bad film, and considering how many terrible films in the genre litter theaters these days, it's almost worth seeing. Still, from someone as prolific and talented as Woody allen is, we have to demand more as an audience. We can make this demand because we know he can deliver; let's just hope that Allen's next film marks a more consistent return to his previous masterpieces.
Verdict: Movie Meh
RT Score: 60%
A Note on Breaking the Fourth Wall - If you're going to do it, do it right - and here, it didn't anything to help the film. Breaking the fourth wall with random characters in the first and final scenes felt totally unnecessary and cliché, with poor acting to boot. Not to repeat myself, but Love Actually did this well with a very sweet voiceover from Hugh Grant during silent footage at Heathrow Airport; here, it's just seems like a silly and non-sequitur bookend to the story. Even in his past films, fourth wall breaking was implemented in a totally different (and more successful) manner - usually coming directly from whatever character Allen was playing.