In the last decade, Woody Allen has been taking his show on the road. His latest movies have taken him across Europe—Match Point and Scoop were filmed in London, then he went to spain for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and he emerged from Paris with a gem that pleased everyone, Midnight in Paris. Allen explained his departure from New York in a recent interview for Television Without Pity. He said that filming in the U.S. is expensive, and since a number of European cities have offered to help fund his productions, he's had to make his movies on the other side of the Atlantic.
In To Rome with Love, Allen does a superb job incorporating the unique aspects of the city into his movie. He showcases the ancient landmarks and how they coexist in an exciting, modern metropolis. The film tells four separate stories that take place in the city, and Allen employs the outrageous juxtaposition and tumultuous love affairs that are the signature of his work. Two of these story-lines are amazingly funny, while the other two are only moderately entertaining. But overall, To Rome with Love delivers a fantastically imaginative adventure that pulls at the heart.
One of the vignettes follows Leopoldo Pisanello (Roberto Benigni), an ordinary Roman who works as a clerk and lives with his wife and children. His life can only be described as mundane. One day he walks out of his home and is inexplicably a celebrity. Everywhere he goes, Pisanello is swarmed by paparazzi. The press wants to know if he likes his bread toasted or untoasted. One reporter broadcasts from his bathroom while he shaves, promising to cover everything “from the first to the last stroke.”
Benigni's puzzled expressions while being harassed by the press are hilarious, but only Woody Allen can make this kind of material mesmerizingly funny. The audience knows that we are laughing at our own obsession with celebrities. This over-the-top humor harkens back to Allen's earliest work, but his commentary about everyone's secret desire for attention feels especially timely in the era of youtube and reality TV.
Another story-line focuses on John (Alec Baldwin), a successful architect, vacationing in Rome and revisiting his old stomping grounds, having lived in the city during college. He crosses paths with a young architecture student named Jack (Jesse Eisenburg). Jack is living with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) who has invited her friend, Monica (Ellen Page), to stay with them. John warns that a relationship with Monica will end in heartache, but Jack is intrigued nonetheless.
This part of the movie is disappointing, largely due to the acting. What I liked about Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris was that he channeled Woody's voice while still maintaining his signature, easy-going charm. Eisenburg's character has no voice at all and the actor seems awkward and stiff on screen. His performance reminded me of a teenager acting in a high school play. Page portrays her character as the script demands, a self-obsessed girl, but she fails to flesh her out with any redeeming qualities. Only Alec Baldwin is entertaining in this story-line, employing the same smooth delivery that works so well on 30 Rock.
Another vignette follows a newlywed couple, Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) and Antonio (Alessadro Tiberi), who have arrived in Rome to meet with Antonio's wealthy relatives. He hopes to make a good impression so they will give him a job in their successful business. Circumstances separate the couple just before Antonio's family arrives. The way each of them perceive Rome is symbolized by their different journeys. For Milly, Rome represents glamor and excitement while Antonio sees Rome as intimidating and dirty— mostly due to his experience with a high-level escort played by Penelope Cruz. Their story offers many humorous scenes but it disappoints at the end— neither of them appear to have gained any insights from their experience. The lack of growth from the characters makes their adventures seem pointless and inconsequential.
The final story-line involves a retired opera director named Jerry, played by none other than Woody Allen. Jerry and his wife are in Rome to meet the family of his daughter's new fiance. The story begins with the expected friction between the American and Roman families, but when Jerry discovers that the father (played by renowned opera singer Fabio Armiliato) of his soon-to-be son in law is an exception tenor, he attempts to rejuvenate his career by bringing Armilliato's character to the stage. The story builds in momentum until it is an outrageous spectacle. The humor is buoyed by Allen's performance, but it is the comedic intuition of Allen as a director that makes this portion of the movie gleefully enjoyable.
To Rome with Love is a little bit messy but it delivers a lot of memorable moments. The film is another example of Allen's talent for original storytelling. At many points he bravely departs from traditional hollywood narratives and his vignettes involve complex themes that should linger in the minds of the audience. Anyone who is a Woody Allen fan should go and see this movie. You will not be disappointed.