You can just about count on Woody Allen to always make a comeback, or if not a comeback, then a streak of four or five good movies, before funking out, only to come back with a really good one. Through the course of his rather extraordinary career which has seen him average a film a year since 1970, sometimes two, he seems to have a streak where he makes one masterpiece after another, then makes a series of average to very weak films, leaving us just about to write him off, only to have him roar back with an excellent film that reminds us of the great director-writer he is. He has not enjoyed a period like the late seventies and mid-eighties for quite some time, but still seems able to come back when we think he might be done. Last year I was thrilled to have Allen back with his lovely film Midnight in Paris (2011), a superb time travel comedy-fantasy beautifully written, directed and acted, which landed the film in the Oscar race, earning Allen his third Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
I admire the films of Woody Allen, but make no mistake there are three distinct categories of Allen’s work. They are the great, the OK, and the ugly. Averaging nearly a film since 1970 he is bound to have a failure or two, and Allen has enjoyed more than his fair share of those, but when he is also responsible for some of the greatest American films ever made, a great deal is forgiven.
The Great Allen work includes, Love and Death (1976), Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978), Manhattan (1979), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Husbands and Wives (1992), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Match Point (2005), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and Midnight in Paris (2011) land in the first category as very good to great Allen films. OK work would be Bananas (1971), Sleeper (1973), Stardust Memories (1980), A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), Zelig (1983), Radio Days (1987), Alice (1990), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Every One Says I Love You (1996), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Sweet and Lowdown (1999), and Small Time Crooks (2000), all pretty good to fair work. The rest, the ugly, which include September (1987), Another Woman (1988), Shadows and Fog (1992), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Celebrity (1998), the truly horrible The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), Hollywood Ending (2002), the wretched Anything Else (2003), Melinda and Melinda (2005), Scoop (2006), Cassandra’s Dream (2007), Whatever Works (2009) and You Will Meet Tall Dark Stranger (2010) are the weakest films of Allen’s career, a couple of them truly terrible pictures, while the others have some interesting things in them, but not near enough to make them worthwhile for viewing. I will never forget watching Kenneth Branagh do a spot on Woody Allen impersonation in Celebrity (1998) for no reason at all, other than he seemed to want to do it. The most unnecessary such performance I have ever seen, and it hampered the film!! One oddity among the ugly was Whatever Works (2009) in which Larry David seemed to be the perfect Woody Allen actor, but the film gave him little to do except do what he does on The Larry Sanders Show, which is be an arrogant, grouchy, self-absorbed ass most of the time alienating anyone who attempts to be his friend. I would love to see them work together again.
His filmography is the most unusual of any director working in American cinema, perhaps because it displays an artist willing to fail, willing to take a risk and understand that the risk may not work. That he has always had backing for his work speaks volumes about what people think of Woody Allen. While there was great concern when he began making films away from New York, I think it allowed Allen to expand as a director, to grow artistically in a way he had not for quite some time. The films were refreshing and very different from anything he made previous. So with the success last year of Midnight in Paris (2011), my hopes were high for To Rome with Love.
Sadly the film is failure, but like most Allen failures has some interesting things in it. To begin with Rome looks lovely, as good as it did in the lush The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) or the foreign language works out of Italy that Allen so admired in the sixties. We understand at once the hold the city has on people, because it enraptured us simply by being there on the screen. It’s too bad the characters were not as interesting as the landscape in this one.
There are four stories, none interconnected, each set in Rome. Without the lovely fantasy element that allowed the happenings to take place in Midnight in Paris (2011), the director is relying on the audiences’ good faith to suspend their disbelief and accept what is happening within the film. Audiences are not so willing to do that anymore, because they expect more from their films and filmmakers. The best of the stories, deals with Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) a young architect who comes to the ancient city to be inspired, only to find that his girl, Sally (Greta Gerwig), has generously asked her friend Monica (Ellen Page) to stay with them while they are together in Rome. Thinking nothing of it, Jack agrees, only to find that Monica is a vixen who wants nothing more than to seduce Jack, something she seems to do routinely. Thrown into the mix is John (Alec Baldwin) a character who cannot be seen by all the characters in the story, leaving us to deduce he could be a ghost, a spirit of one of the men Monica has previously seduced then cast away, or perhaps Jack’s conscience talking to him.
Eisenberg is one of those actors born to do Allen films and makes a strong impression here, as a young man fearful of what Monica could do to him, but Page steals the story as the hot to trot young woman who makes it her mission in life to bed unwilling men. Never before has the actress displayed such raw sexuality and it brings out something dangerous in her, a very different danger than she had in Hard Candy (2006), but rather a carnal electricity.
The second story Allen casts himself as Jerry a retired opera director who has come to Rome to meet his daughters’ fiance who turns out to be a card carrying communist, something that repels her father. However, while here Jerry makes a discovery, the boy’s father is a stunning opera talent while singing in the shower, leaving him the challenge of getting the man onstage. Nothing terribly interesting here, and it is frankly a little odd to see Allen back in his films after an absence that seemed, frankly, welcomed.
Yet another story has a man mistakenly given Anna (Penelope Cruz) as a gift, a gorgeous hooker who is his for the asking, while the fourth and worst of the tales has Oscar winner (and I still cannot believe that) Robert Benigni cast as a ordinay man suddenly famous for a short period, hounded by paparazzi, his life under the microscope of the media. All this sequence did was prove that Benigni really did con the Academy into giving him an Oscar in 1998, because he is just short of a spastic monkey without the organ grinder. terrible, just terrible. Penelope Cruz, who won an Oscar under Allen’s direction in 2008, is very good here, but given little to do other than be sexual, which she can do in her sleep by now.
Uneven, messy, unresolved, and sometimes terribly acted, especially by Benigni, there is not much in the film to admire other than the wicked Page performance, Eisenberg who seems to be god in anything, and Cruz. Once again, the picture looks terrific, but I, like other audience members do not go to the movies to stare at postcard worthy shots.
That said, I have faith in Allen, he’ll be back, more than once I suspect.