Set in the Eternal City, Woody Allen’s latest comedy, To Rome With Love, is a ragged but not unenjoyable piece that feels like something the filmmaker tossed off on his vacation. Given how prolific Woody Allen is, it’s miraculous that more of his movies don’t feel this way. The film’s four plotlines are connected only by the city in which they take place, which presents some challenges for me as a reviewer. Let’s take each storyline by itself.
One begins with an American architecture student named Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) meeting John (Alec Baldwin), a famous architect who happens to have lived in Jack’s current apartment as a younger man. John sticks close to Jack in the coming weeks, commenting caustically as the latter falls for struggling Hollywood actress Monica (Ellen Page), who is friends with Jack’s girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) as well as a poseur and compulsive liar. As John constantly tells Jack what a mistake he’s making, we’re invited to interpret John as the student’s nagging conscience or perhaps an older and marginally wiser version of Jack. How else to explain why John is mysteriously always present on Jack and Monica’s dates or why he’s hardly ever called out for his insulting remarks? More clarity from the filmmaker on this point would have helped, but this part of the movie gets by on Baldwin’s intelligent smarm and especially on Page, who’s stuck in one of Allen’s sexy-neurotic woman roles but brings great energy and locates Monica’s enthusiasm and scatteredness.
This plotline feels like the odd one out, though. If there’s a theme unifying the others, it’s fame. The weakest story involves Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi), a honeymooning couple from a small Italian town who become separated when Milly gets lost on the Roman streets. While the worrywart Antonio deals with a prostitute (Penélope Cruz) who shows up at his hotel room thinking that she’s been paid to have sex with him, Milly winds up in the suite of a randy middle-aged movie star (Antonio Albanese), intrigued by the idea of sex with somebody so famous. Tiberi’s unconscious imitation of Woody Allen’s nervous mannerisms and deliveries is perversely fascinating; many other actors have fallen into the same trap before him, but none of them has done so in Italian. Allen’s sense of farce here is logy, uninspired, and obvious.
Better is the storyline in which Allen portrays Jerry, a retired opera director who comes to Rome for his daughter’s wedding to an Italian lawyer (Flavio Parenti). Jerry’s misgivings about the union melt away when he chances to hear the groom’s father — a funeral director named Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) — unleashing a world-class tenor voice as he sings in the shower. Despite opposition from almost everyone, including Giancarlo himself, Jerry resolves to bring this incredible unrecognized talent to the operatic realm. This builds up to a comic set piece, which I’ll simply describe as a far-out avant-garde staging of I Pagliacci, that was probably funnier on paper than it is on the screen. Even though that falls short, there’s still some tasty stuff about Jerry’s dissatisfaction with his retirement driving the whole project. It’s also a great showcase for the sharply handsome Armiliato, a real-life opera star in his first film role. In addition to giving a terrific performance as a regular guy who wants no part of stardom, Armiliato sings some glorious renditions of Puccini, Leoncavallo, and Umberto Giordano.
A purely surreal plot revolves around Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), a thoroughly uninteresting office worker who nevertheless steps out his front door one morning and is besieged by paparazzi photographers and reporters breathlessly asking him what he ate for breakfast and what he plans to do for the day. Bewildered, he quickly becomes a tabloid celebrity who appears on TV talk shows and hangs out with other famous people, and the joke is that it happens for no reason at all. Allen’s doing more than commenting on the arbitrary nature of fame; he’s charting its effects on Leopoldo, who has mixed feelings upon becoming well-known and then has more of them when the media suddenly desert him to make a celebrity out of another random guy. The last time Allen tried to tackle this subject was his 1998 film Celebrity, which turned out rather badly. This little essay on fame is funnier and less heavy-handed, and it contributes to To Rome With Love’s overall feeling of sitting in a piazza and breezily observing the foibles of passersby.
To Rome With Love
Starring Woody Allen, Fabio Armiliato, Penélope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg, and Ellen Page. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Rated R.