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To Rome With Love
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by Brett Gallman

"Minor Woody is still better than Bad Woody."
3 stars

A featherweight entry into the Woody Allen canon, “To Rome With Love” is another European jaunt that breezily tackles four tales of whimsy, romance, mortality, and even a little bit of regret in The Eternal City.

The quartet of vignettes follows a sold-out architect (Alec Baldwin) wandering the streets he lived as a college student, where he encounters an architect student (Jesse Eisenberg) who his following in the elder’s footsteps. Meanwhile, Roman tourist Hayley (Alison Pill) has fallen for Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), and the their families are about to meet for the first time. Another segment finds Roberto Begnini as a working-class guy who wakes up to sudden overnight fame for no particular reason. Finally, the fourth story follows the bizarre day of a husband (Alessandro Tiberi) and wife (Alessandra Mastronardi) who get separated on their honeymoon: he somehow gets stuck with a prostitute (Penelope Cruz), while she’s wooed by a famous actor (Antonio Albanese).

Allen circles these as nimbly as he can. “To Rome With Love” is a film that feels cobbled together from half-formed ideas that he might have had for separate films, and it’s not the sort of anthology where the characters bump into each other or hover around a specific event (like “Mystery Train”), so the film just arbitrarily shifts gears as it weaves the tales throughout its runtime and comes close to sputtering out at the end, once it’s become clear that some of the stories only have one-note.

Despite the threadbare conceptions, the film does feel very much lived-in. I feel like I could watch entire films centered around this ensemble, but we’re only treated to slivers in their lives here. Most of them feel like trifling, unimportant slivers (albeit with very human, relatable motivations driving them), save for the story featuring Baldwin and Eisenberg, which also happens to be the best. Though all the segments are tinged with magic realism, this one straddles the line between memory and reality. There’s a sense that Eisenberg could just very well be Baldwin’s younger self, as the latter drops in to offer commentary and insight on the former’s ill-fated blossoming romance with his girlfriend’s best friend (Ellen Page). Baldwin’s trademark snark is well-pitched in the role of a cynical sell-out who sees Eisenberg repeating the same mistakes he did thirty years earlier.

Both Eisenberg and Page seem born to play Woody Allen characters; while Eisenberg isn’t as awkward and neurotic as you might expect, he still carries that twenty-something ennui that makes him an easy target for Page’s seductress. That sounds like odd casting, and there’s definitely an incongruity between the actress and that description (especially when she’s stealing him from someone like Greta Gerwig), but Page crafts a fascinating type of seductress, one who uses her ability to bullshit her worldliness to charm her targets. She’s an ideal that seems to have been conjured up as a liberal arts major's fantasy, a name-dropping, poetry-reciting struggling actress who represents something more adventurous than the safe bet.

From there, the rest of the stories are a bit of a mixed bag and get progressively weightless as they wear on. The story involving Hayley and Michelangelo is probably the one most important to Allen himself, as he casts himself as Hayley’s father, a former opera director who equates retirement with death. He makes a last gasp at greatness after discovering Michelangelo’s father has a wonderful singing voice--but only when he’s in the shower. After all these years, Allen is still plumbing the depths of his own psyche and laying himself pretty bare in the form of his character; Allen reserves many of the film’s best lines for himself, and he’s often as sharp as ever, his Bronx-inflected whine still brimming with neurosis.

The remaining two stories are even more slight but are filled with some fun performances. Begnini is dialed down to tolerable levels in the role of the man who begins to learn that fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, though the gag wears out its welcome pretty quickly. Whenever Penelope Cruz is on-screen, the story involving the newlyweds really sizzles, as the voluptuous actress is fantastic as the hooker who is eventually forced to act like Tiberi’s wife. Hints of a bawdy sex comedy often emerge here, whether it’s in the form of clever lines or situations, and her arc with Tiberi is the stuff of “Private Lessons” when she attempts to loosen him up a bit.

“To Rome With Love” is also a loving travelogue, of course, as Allen lovingly gazes upon the city’s sights and sounds: its ruins, its piazzas, its terraces. He also pays due reverence to the country’s cinema by populating the film with its native actors and actresses. While its history and culture aren't deeply explored, there’s a very deep affection for the city’s charms that’s explicitly articulated by the film’s host, a traffic policeman who assures us that our next visit will reveal even more stories like these, as if the city exists as a magical hub that churns out these sort of sketches.

It’d be easy to say that Rome is the only thing connecting these stories, but there’s a streak of humility running through all of them, as each extols the virtues of living humbly and avoiding either celebrity life or paths that lead to adventure and excitement. The sentiment is perhaps an odd counterbalance to the whimsical, Romantic notions surrounding Rome, but the fact that Allen wanted to call it “Nero Fiddles” might be a clue that all of these characters can’t see the burning forest for all the pretty trees.

At the age of 76, Allen certainly mirrors the character he’s playing here, an artist who still creates out of a compulsion. As such, something like “To Rome With Love” feels like an attempt to get some ideas out of his system regardless of how important or weighty they might be. The result is a pleasant variety hour style array that’s lovely but minor, a hastily scrawled postcard from the director’s European travels. If “Midnight in Paris” was a crescendo that reconfirmed Allen’s genius, then this is the frothy sea foam that washed ashore soon afterwards before harmlessly receding.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23537&reviewer=429
originally posted: 07/07/12 04:00:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/18/13 mr.mike A few laughs but does'nt add up to much. 3 stars
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  22-Jun-2012 (R)
  DVD: 15-Jan-2013


  DVD: 15-Jan-2013

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