Sunday, July 15, 2012

Movie Review: To Rome with Love

To Rome with Love
Directed by: Woody Allen.
Written by: Woody Allen.
Starring: Woody Allen (Jerry), Judy Davis (Phyllis), Alison Pill (Hayley), Flavio Parenti (Michelangelo), Fabio Armiliato (Giancarlo), Jesse Eisenberg (Jack), Ellen Page (Monica), Alec Baldwin (John), Greta Gerwig (Sally), Alessandro Tiberi (Antonio), Alessandra Mastronardi (Milly), Penélope Cruz (Anna), Antonio Albanese (Luca Salta), Roberto Benigni (Leopoldo), Monica Nappo (Sofia), Sergio Solli (Leopoldo's Chauffeur).

Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love feels like four half formed movie ideas that Allen throws at the screen to see what will stick – and unfortunately nothing really does. There are isolated moments – lines, scenes – that work and are delightful, but for too much of the films running time the film feel strained. I can see how two of the four stories – ironically, the ones featuring mostly American character – could have been made into a decent movie, even intertwining the two stories together, had Allen put more care and thought into them. Unfortunately the two story strands featuring almost entirely Italian characters fall completely and totally flat. It`s almost like Allen had two half formed ideas for American characters (which it should be said, could have been set anywhere) when the funding came through to shoot a film in Italy, so he threw something together at the last moment. Coming on the heels on Allen`s best film is year with Midnight in Paris, this makes To Rome with Love one of the year`s biggest disappointments.

The four story strands are as follows – neurotic Jerry (Allen himself) and his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) arrive in Rome so that they can meet up with their daughter (Allison Pill) and her fiancé (Flavio Parenti). When Jerry, a retired Avant garde opera producer, hears the fiancé`s father (Fabio Armiliato) sing in the shower, he thinks he can turn him into a great opera star – and won’t be discouraged even when it turns out he can only sing in the shower. In another story, neurotic Jack (Jessie Eisenberg), as aspiring architect, meets one of his idols (Alec Baldwin), who mysteriously hangs around and gives Jack advice as he risks throwing over his lovely girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) for her pretentious friend (Ellen Page). Another story has neurotic Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and his innocent young wife Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) arrive in Rome from the Italian countryside so he can start a new job for his uncles. The problem, the uncles want to meet Milly, who has got lost looking for a hair salon and gets swept up by a famous actor, while through a series of misunderstandings, Antonio winds up with a prostitute (Penelope Cruz), who agrees to pretend to be his wife for the day. And finally, there is neurotic office drone Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) who wakes up one morning to discover he`s the most famous man in Italy. What for? No one can tell him, but they don’t care, and eventually neither does he. After all, beautiful women are throwing themselves at him, and he can have whatever he wants.

I think I enjoyed the segment with Allen himself in it the most, but perhaps it was just because it was nice to see him on the big screen for the first time since 2006`s Scoop. Even though in nearly every one of Allen`s films he has a `Woody surrogate`, no one is better at playing the classic Allen character better than Allen himself. The problem here is that this segment is a one joke comedy – and doesn’t really go anywhere you don’t seem coming from the setup. But it is a joy to see Allen work – especially with a screen partner as great as Judy Davis, and Allison Pill as their daughter is a delight, so while the segment doesn’t really work, it’s at least kind of fun. The same can be said about the other segment involving the Americans. Jessie Eisenberg makes a good Woody surrogate in this segment – perhaps a little too good, as his nervous stammering, and comic delivery is too close to Allen`s for comfort. Yet, Eisenberg is still the best part of this segment – the usually radiant Greta Gerwig is completely wasted as his girlfriend, and Alec Baldwin and Ellen Page are miscast. Since Baldwin is supposed to be a mentor of sorts to Eisenberg – or perhaps even just as an older version of him – wouldn’t it have made more sense to cast Allen himself in the role? And since Page`s Monica is supposed to be some sexpot that men are instantly drawn to, I couldn’t help but think this would have been a perfect role for Allen favorite Scarlett Johansson. Page tries valiantly, but she does cute, funny and spunky way better than she does irresistibly sexy. So again, the segment doesn’t really work, but it’s not painful to sit through.

The same cannot be said about the two segments in Italian however. As if having Allen himself in the cast, along with a pretty solid Allen surrogate in Eisenberg wasn’t enough, Allen insists on turning Alessandro Tiberi`s Antonio into an Italian Allen surrogate as well – and this time the results aren’t anywhere close to being good. His fumbling and stumbling through the segment are a pain to sit through – with almost no laughs as a payoff. Yes, I liked seeing the fiery side of Penelope Cruz come out again as the prostitute, but surely there was something more she could have done. And yes, Alessandra Mastronardi, as the seemingly innocent Milly, carries her half of this segment well, but it never leads anywhere except around in circles. And finally, there is the segment with Oscar winner Roberto Benigni, who I suspect most North American audiences haven`t seen since his success with Life is Beautiful (1998), as he kind of screwed up the follow-up. No matter what you can say about Benigni as a filmmaker, he can be hilarious, and is a great physical comedian, which at least livens up his segment quite a bit. But it seems like once Allen had his idea of someone `being famous for being famous`, he couldn’t think of anywhere to go with it except to have him chased around by paparazzi.

To Rome with Love is Allen`s 44th feature film – he has essentially made one film per year since the late 1960s. His status as a master filmmaker has long since been established. And yet, often in recent years it feels like he`s simply going through the motions – making films out of force of habit more than anything else. He`s got far too much talent not to hit one out of the park every once in a while – like Midnight in Paris last year. But To Rome with Love, like other recent clunkers like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Scoop, just feels like Allen really isn’t trying. He`s now 77, and I hope he has another great film or two left in him. Sadly, To Rome with Love is nowhere close.

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