Full disclosure: I’ve yet to see a Woody Allen film that I haven’t liked. That being said, I can recognize when a movie of his isn’t exactly his finest hour. That’s the case with ‘To Rome With Love’, an effort that will rank among his less highly regarded flicks. I still found it enjoyable and funny, but he’s done better work than this, and even I recognized it. It really comes down to a lot of odd decisions on Allen’s part. The choices are each individually not deal breakers on their own, but put together it might pose an issue for those who aren’t die-hard fans of the Wood Man like I am. A far cry from ‘Midnight in Paris’ (which I rank among his 10 best), I might actually put ‘To Rome With Love’ in his bottom 10, but again…the worst Woody Allen movie is still above average to me. This is an often charming romantic comedy, but it does have enough faults that I can’t completely recommend it to you. I think it’s worth seeing, but check your expectations at the door somewhat. I’ve waffled on the star ranking for this review in the week or so since I’ve seen it (I’m embargoed until opening day, as you can see), but I think 2 and a half makes sense. Honestly, add a half star if you always love Allen (like me, even if I’m not amazingly high on this one) and subtract a half star if you’re not a fan of his. Also, for more on the film, check out my coverage of the film’s New York Press Conference here.
There are 4 stories that make up the plot of the film, though oddly enough they never come together in any way (more on that later, though), leaving them as essentially short films set in Rome. One involves Jerry (Allen), who’s on a trip with his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) to Italy in order to meet the Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), the fiance of their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill). Michelangelo’s father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) is a mortician, but sings beautifully in the shower, leading Jerry (a retired Opera director) to scheme a way to show off his talents to the world, with humorous results. Another story has famous architect John (Alec Baldwin) on vacation, running into Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a student living in Rome with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). Jack reminds John of himself (and they might actually be the same person…it’s up to us there), and hangs around to offer up advice when Sally’s promiscuous and beguiling friend Monica (Ellen Page) comes to stay with them. A different story has an ordinary man named Leopoldo (Robert Begnigni) wake up one morning to find himself inexplicably a celebrity, and the havoc that causes on his life. The last story involves a newlywed couple (Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi). The wife gets lost in the city and the husband is mistakenly identified as a client for a high-class escort (Penelope Cruz). Like I said, these stories never really come together, making for a somewhat disjointed experience. There are laughs, but far too little story.
The acting is very solid, though that’s really nothing new in a Woody Allen film. Allen himself is doing his normal schtick, but we haven’t seen it in a few years and it plays nicely. Amongst the ensemble cast, Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz, Alessandra Mastronardi, and Ellen Page fare the best, as they each bring something interesting to simple enough roles (Baldwin is the highlight to me). There’s nothing wrong with Roberto Begnigni or Jesse Eisenberg, but they’re not as impressive. Greta Gerwig is underused though, and the same goes for Alison Pill and Judy Davis. Fabio Armiliato is a singer in his own right, and fits in well there, though his acting isn’t nearly as good as his singing. Overall, it’s the typical strong and unique cast of a Woody Allen film.
Woody Allen’s filmmaking is a bit different here than normal. He’s opted to tell a lot of simple stories and focus more on the charm than on the plotting. Some things threaten to be plot holes (for example, the stories are supposedly happening at the same time, but their lengths are wildly different, ranging from a few hours to possibly months), and it’s oftentimes a bit underwritten. Allen the director and Allen the writer are content to leave a lot to the imagination (such as whether or not John and Jack are the same person), but it’s not done with quite as much care as you’d expect (and also goes on about 10 minutes or so longer than it probably should). That being said, the direction makes use of the beautiful location, and the jokes in the film are plenty funny. I just expected a bit more from Woody.
Overall, ‘To Rome With Love’ is a light flick, one more likely to appeal to Woody Allen fans than anyone else. I’d expect some bigger business than average due to the goodwill generated by ‘Midnight in Paris’, but aside from being set in Europe, this is a very different animal. I’m not recommending it for everyone, but Allen fans will find enough to like here to warrant a ticket purchase. I wish this had been a more complete work that I could embrace fully, but a lesser Woody Allen film is still better than a lot of things I’ve seen this year, so I’m not disappointed. If nothing else, this could be the vacation to Italy you never got to go on.