By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The movie’s title is To Rome with Love. This review’s title is To Woody with Respect, Gratitude, and Disappointment.
That’s my way of acknowledging the astonishing resume of the writer-director of Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and her Sisters, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, and the three-dozen or so other pleasure-giving comedies by Woody Allen, including last year’s thoroughly delightful and commercially successful Midnight in Paris.
That said, so must this be: his latest, To Rome with Love, is wrongheaded overall and sometimes, shockingly, dreadful.
Originally titled The Bop Decameron, then Nero Fiddles, To Rome with Love has a superficial resemblance to the Italian sex farces of the 1960’s such as Marriage Italian Style and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. It’s Allen’s seventh film in seven years set in a major European city, following productions in London, Barcelona, and Paris. The view of Rome is certainly idealized, as have been Allen’s views of the other cities, including New York, that he has shot in. But that’s not the problem here.
The problem is that the four intercut but hardly interwoven vignettes set in The Eternal City not only don’t amount to much, but keep interrupting each other and creating gaps in the storytelling that make it seem as if the projectionist has juggled the reels.
This is a severely underdeveloped narrative from one of the most gifted screenwriters in motion picture history.
Jesse Eisenberg plays a young architect who falls for the actress best friend (Ellen Page) of his live-in girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) despite the warnings of older and wiser architect and supposedly kindred spirit Alec Baldwin.
Allen himself – in his first on-screen role since 2006 — plays a retired opera director whose wife, Judy Davis, accuses him of looking for excuses to come out of that retirement and who finds one when he hears the father of daughter Alison Pill’s fiance singing in the shower. So he decides to manage his willy-nilly opera career.
Roberto Benigni plays an ordinary husband and father who suddenly finds himself experiencing his fifteen minutes of fame when the paparazzi and reality TV come a-calling.
And Penelope Cruz is a prostitute who finds herself impersonating a newlywed’s wife when a young married couple accidentally separate for an afternoon and the hubby encounters his in-laws while the wifey encounters a predatory movie star.
The anonymous cop directing traffic in Rome who opens the film is a perfect metaphor for a movie that’s much too crowded and chaotic for comprehension or enjoyment. He soon causes an accident and so does Allen, making one bad decision after another: from casting himself and looking uncomfortable throughout, to squandering the gifts of proven talents like Baldwin and Davis and Benigni, to mixing four inconsequential short stories instead of developing one satisfying, feature-length plot.
The shaky work with his actors here might seem to indicate that Allen should stick to writing instead of directing at this point in his career. Of course, that might seem contradicted by the weakness of this film’s screenplay. And then there’s Midnight in Paris displaying his directorial strengths as recently as a year ago.
So the jury shall remain out, at least for one more movie – one reportedly to be shot back in the U.S. Perhaps the auteur’s globe-hopping phase has just played itself out.
Anyway, we’ll traffic in 2 stars out of 4 for the off-his-game omnibus Woody Allen comedy, To Rome with Love. If Allen is to keep cranking out worthwhile movies, he’ll need to regain his Midnight in Paris form. Would that Woody would.