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To Rome With Love (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

To Rome With Love


Starring Woody Allen, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Roberto Benigni, Alec Baldwin, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi, Greta Gerwig, Alison Pill, Fabio Armiliato and Ornella Muti.

Screenplay by Woody Allen.

Directed by Woody Allen.

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. 112 minutes. Rated R.

Woody Allen’s European Tour continues, in fact it is picking up steam.

After being known for decades as the preeminent chronicler of the New York intellectual set, in 2005 Allen decided to break away from his favorite setting (some may say his muse) and make a movie in London.  Allen later acknowledged in a press conference in which we attended that this change of scene was not a personal call.  It was simply economic.  As a small independent filmmaker (though one with dozens of films to his credit), he could no longer afford to film regularly in New York. 

Therefore, he took a script that he had written about New York and transplanted it to the upper classes of England.  Match Point became both Allen’s most strongly acclaimed film and most popular hit in about a decade.  Therefore, he decided to do a couple more movies in England, but the returns were not as special and Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream returned the director to the fuzzy, directionless filmmaking he had been putting out with dismaying regularity leading up to Match Point.

Maybe another setting change was due.  Vicky Cristina Barcelona took a look at American expatriates in the lovely Spanish city in the title.  Again, Allen’s work was rejuvenated and all looked right in Woody International.  After one film in Spain, Allen returned home to New York for an unexceptional film (Whatever Works) and then returned to Spain for another slightly subpar work (You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger). 

Feeling that Spain was getting tapped out, Allen fished out his passport and Eurail pass again and set up shop in the City of Lights.  Midnight in Paris confounded all expectations by becoming Allen’s most popular film ever – yes, more than Annie Hall or Manhattan or Hannah & Her Sisters or Crimes & Misdemeanors.  And while the film may have gotten slightly better reviews than it deserved, it was still a finely made comic fantasy and worthy of note.

Perhaps being a world traveler agrees with Allen. 

He has decided not to let Paris play itself out with additional movies with diminishing rewards.  Instead he moved on to his next gorgeous European city.  However, this time around, the diminishing rewards seem to have followed him.

To Rome with Love is a kind of charming, whimsical love letter to the city and to director Federico Fellini, but it’s also Woody the writer on a bit of autopilot.  For a change, the new city did not inspire the best in Allen. 

To Rome with Love is an ensemble piece – as Allen’s films often are – which travels between four different story threads.  The sad fact is, while each of these threads have more than their share of funny moments, two of them are just ridiculous (the fact that Woody obviously knew that and was winking at us does not go far enough to redeem them), one is merely very, very unlikely and the fourth one appears to be something of a narrative trick.

Allen even got back in front of the camera for his first acting role since Scoop in 2006.  While he does a terrific job at just being himself on camera as he has so many times, the role he has written for himself and the situation he is in let him down.

In the first vignette (and none of these plot threads are substantial enough to be called a story) Allen stars as an New Yorker visiting Rome with his wife to meet his daughter’s new fiancé and his family.   His wife (the wondrous Judy Davis, an Allen favorite) and daughter (Alison Pill of The Newsroom, who had also worked with Allen in Midnight in Paris) try to get his ugly American to enjoy the city and the culture.  However, he would rather kvetch about everything.  His character is a classical record producer and he is having a miserable time until he overhears his new in-law’s perfect operatic voice.  The only problem is – the guy can only sing in the shower.  Woody, you’re supposed to be above such hijinx.  The fact that it almost works is fully due to the talent of the writer and the stars, however eventually nothing can hide the absurd lengths that the storyline takes to sell it’s ridiculous premise.

Story two is a bit more topical and surreal, but it is also even more divorced from reality. (Again, the fact that Allen knows this doesn’t make it work.) It stars hyperactive Italian comedian Roberto Begnini (Life is Beautiful) as a Roman corporate drone who somehow briefly becomes a huge celebrity.  There is literally no explanation as to how or why this is happening, a slightly heavy-handed but kinda funny jab at reality TV.  Suddenly, everywhere he goes, everyone knows and loves him and hangs on his every word, no matter how banal they might be.  As much as he hates the attention, he craves it as well.

The third segment has a young gorgeous Italian couple moving to Rome for him to take a new job, however they get separated, eventually with the husband meeting a spicy local call girl (Penelope Cruz) and the wife being awestruck after meeting a flirtatious local matinee idol.  Again, everything that happens seems too coincidental and unlikely, but it is mildly amusing, particularly Cruz’ saucy performance as the woman of the night.

The final – and arguably most realistic – storyline also oddly seems to revolve around fantasy.  Alec Baldwin plays a middle-aged architect who revisits his old neighborhood in the city – where he briefly lived with an old girlfriend.  He happens upon an architecture student (Jesse Eisenberg), who is living in his old area with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig).  However, he seems way too worked up when he finds out that the girlfriend’s best friend (Ellen Page) is going to be visiting, warning his new friend that he will fall for this new girl.  Eventually, though, Baldwin’s ability to always be there and know all that is going to happen makes you wonder if this is all just Baldwin reliving and trying to repair his failed past relationship in his mind.

I believe that Woody Allen loves Rome and he most certainly makes the city look gorgeous.  However, for as much as To Rome with Love tries to be a mash letter to the city, it turns out to be am oddly offbeat courting.  It mostly works, but not without showing the strain.  Had this been Woody’s second Rome film it may have seemed more satisfying.  As it is, this fluffy little soufflé of a movie satisfies briefly but evaporates quickly.

Wonder which city is next for Woody?  Get ready for your close-up, Madrid, Athens, Cannes or Lisbon.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2012 All rights reserved. Posted: August 26, 2012.

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