Saturday, July 7, 2012

Film Review: To Rome With Love

In recent years, after a decade-long spate of less than critically acclaimed works, Woody Allen decided to make a quick exodus from his native Manhattan island and travel abroad for a bit.  From London, where he made the neo-noirish Match Point, a comeback of sorts, the better-to-be-forgotten Scoop, and the totally forgotten Cassandra's Dream, to Spain, where his Vicky Cristina Barcelona was the toast of the continent, and after a quick return to the city of his past for a pair of mediocre meanderings, on to his Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris, which was closer to the director's classic form than anything else in recent years, the neurotic filmmaker has climbed his way back up the proverbial ladder of critical acclaim.  And now the writer/director (and for the first time since the ill-fated Scoop in 2006, actor as well) travels on to the Eternal City for a quartet of non-intermingling stories of love and woe and the ardor of Roma.

To Rome With Love, the 43rd film directed by Woody Allen, is certainly not the director's worst film (ahem, Anything Else, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Scoop for Christ's sake) but it still definitely belongs in the somewhat lower depths of his rather prolific oeuvre.  Probably one of the most banal screenplays ever scripted by Allen, the film does have the good fortune, on occasion, to have itself saved by the performances of its ensemble cast.  On occasion.  Overall, the film just sort of lays there like it is waiting for one of that aforementioned ensemble, be it Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Roberto Benigni, Alec Baldwin, Alison Pill, Judy Davis, Penélope Cruz, Greta Gerwig, or even Woody himself, to step up and do something interesting.  Trust me, this rarely happens.  That it happens at all is a godsend considering the lackluster, pedestrian plodding of the film from point A to point C to point B and so on and so on.

Now perhaps I am being a bit harder on the film than it, or Allen deserves.  There are parts of the film which are quite delightful.  Allen dissects his film into four even but quite unequal parts.  One of these parts works quite well.  A second has its ups and downs.  A third, mostly downs, and a fourth would fail dismally if not for the inclusion of one Mr. Alec Baldwin.  But more on him in a bit.  For now, let us dissect Allen's dissections - from top to bottom.  The quarter that works the best gives us a mild mannered bourgeois member of the title city's run-of-the-mill citizenry.  The fact that this average Joe, or should we say this average Giuseppe, is played by the typically quite manic Signor Benigni, makes it all that much funnier.  Benigni's benign business clerk awakes one day to find his usual drudgery turned upside down by throngs of paparazzi and a sudden absurdist type of celebrity.  Benigni is at his comic best here, playing less the clown and more something in the vein of Buster Keaton.  His bewildered average Giuseppe is the highlight of Allen's very hit-and-miss film.

Secondly, we get the story of young love and old curmudgeonry.   The young love is Alison Pill, an actress we should see more of than we do, and thanks to Aaron Sorkin's HBO series Newsroom, we will be, and Italian Flavio Parenti.  The curmudgeonly point-of-view comes of course from Allen himself as Pill's opera-loving, former avant-garde music promoter-cum-typically neurotic displaced New Yorker father.  The usually spectacular Judy Davis is along for the ride as Pill's psychiatrist mother as well, but in a thankless part that never allows her to even sharpen her acerbic claws, let alone use them.  This segment of the film works on occasion, like when Allen's pushy musicologist (think a failed John Cage-like show promoter) wrangles the mortician father of his soon-to-be son-in-law, played by real life tenor Fabio Armiliato, who sings like Caruso in the shower but hacks and coughs his way through the forced-upon audition he attends, into thinking he can become a star.  Unfortunately, even Allen himself, who does not seem like himself at all, rather doing a pale imitation of himself, seems to be waiting for someone to do something.

In our third segment (and since these stories are not in order, and go back and forth throughout the film, I am only numbering these in order to countdown from best to worst) we get a comically innocent newly married Italian couple from the country, traveling to the big city in order to help the new husband's budding corporate career.  Getting split up due to their unfamiliarity with the swerving streets of Rome, the young couple go on separate adventures into the possibilities of sexual awareness.  We see Penélope Cruz, who won an Oscar for her last Woody heroine in Vicky Cristina, as a red dressed harlot, but much like Davis, she really gets very little to do here.  But still, even though this segment drags way too often (there are some nice touches), it is the fourth, and I suppose the main segment that falters with the greatest of unease.  Featuring Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page and a very underused Greta Gerwig in a romantic triangle of sorts, it is only Alec Baldwin, as an intrusive Greek chorus-cum-group sub-conscious, who saves the day.  Well, almost saves the day.  This segment is by far the weakest part of a film that is already quite weak.

In the end we get perhaps not the worst Woody has ever done (I mean it's not Scoop bad after all) but surely a very lesser Woody indeed. Granted, I do not think the classic Woody Allen of Annie Hall through Crimes and Misdemeanors (a run of thirteen excellent films without exception) will ever truly reappear, but most of the director's more recent films have led one to believe that the possibility of such a new golden age may be on the horizon.  The release of the lackluster To Rome With Love kinda quells that idea.  But hey, like I said earlier, at least it isn't Scoop bad.

4 comments:

Film Flare said...

I haven't watched this, but I agree with what you said about his previous work, and that the 70s Woody is not coming back. And it wouldn't make much sense if he did, at least not exactly like the way he was... but I know what you mean.

But from his more recent works, not mentioned by you, I enjoyed Whatever Works. Anyway I'm curious about To Rome with Love, even if it's not perfect.

Kevyn Knox said...

Whatever Works was an enjoyable film. Nothing great but still good. Of course it is from a script written back in 1977 and was originally meant to be made after Annie Hall with Zero Mostel starring.

TheVern said...

I would gladly watch Scoop before this movie again. These movies would have worked best as 4 complete shorts instead of a full feature. I'm glad that Woody does a movie each year, but this was not one of my favorites. I agree that Greta Gerwig, Penelope Cruz, and Judy Davis was very underused

Anonymous said...

thanks for posting.