By Richard von Busack
It’s not that To Rome With Love was built in a day. But watching the new Woody Allen one remembers the recent PBS documentary about Allen. The director/writer showed off the filing cabinet he’s been keeping for decades, containing typewritten ideas for films. To Rome With Love looks as if he threw three or four of these fortune-cookie slips of paper together and called it a script.
Allen had a hit filling up the screen with Paris; similarly, To Rome With Love delivers huge helpings of Roman vistas, including a 360 degree shot of the Piazza del Popolo. The swooning cityscapes are accompanied with musical familiarities: “Volare” of course, and “Arreverderci, Roma.” Far better accordionism here than in Midnight in Paris.
The pangs this film causes, to those who haven’t been to the city—or to those who have been and miss Rome—are mitigated by jokes older than Tacitus. One sample: a tourist’s comment about Michelangelo working on the Sistine ceiling: “Imagine spending all that time on your back, working.” And a nearby whore replies…
It’s a sprawling, multi-part tale; Allen was thinking Boccaccio, or at least Boccaccio ’70 (1962). He has a Santa Sophia surrogate in Penelope Cruz. Cruz is a goldhearted hooker interfering with a bewildered newlywed couple (Alessandro Tiberi) and his very pretty and shy wife (Alessandra Mastronardi). Cruz concludes her utter conquest of Lorenism by getting a retro hairstyle, by speaking Italian, and wearing a skintight crimson dress displaying what the Firesign Theater once termed “a balcony you could recite Shakespeare off of.” Why couldn’t Allen figure out a better way to introduce such a rare sight than with that immemorial farce that begins: “Surprise! You have just won a free prostitute!”
In a different triangle, Ellen Page plays a flighty actress visiting an expatriate couple: Jack and Sally (Jesse Eisenberg and a squandered Greta Gerwig). As an unasked-for mentor, Alec Baldwin materializes to warn Jack about all those irresponsible trifling dames who listen to Bartok and pretend to read Yeats. (Take Allen’s word for it, such girls are still roaming loose, wreaking havoc.)
Page describes a lesbian sexual encounter during a dinner with the couple; Eisenberg’s Jack makes a really memorable face, exactly like a dog being trained by having a biscuit balanced on its nose.
While Allen has long been stealing the energy of young actors to make himself youthful, he should have left a little more blood in Page. With the exception of one nonchalant modern-girl line (you’ll know it when you hear it) Page seems even more like a director’s relentless construct than she did in Juno.
Allen himself is aboard as a retiree going to Rome with his wife (Judy Davis, another rare sight); his time-tested chicken-liver schtick begins on the Alitalia flight (“Turbulence, my favorite!”).
Allen is naturally funny. He wears old material well. And Roberto Benigni, sprung from movie jail, stars in a snippet about a dull businessman besieged by paparazzi. We wait for Benigni’s Daffy Duck moment: something like the explosion the comedian detonated at the Palermo opera house in Johnny Stecchino (1991). But a pants-dropping tirade is another undernourished payoff.
I have cold admiration for To Rome With Love’s showbiz canniness. If one despairs at the Neil Simonized lines, one admires Allen’s time-honored way in staging a punchline…as in the film’s capping joke, an expensively mounted finale about a great opera singer who can only perform in one condition. It’s like a Seinfeld bit elevated to grand opera.
And Baldwin looks like he has a movie in him: he’s all blasé and blue-blazered, exuding world-weariness. Unfortunately, he has lines Cary Grant couldn’t sell.
Who goes to Rome and murmurs “all these old ruins depress me”?
Two separate characters complain of “Ozymandius melancholia,” even while they get in the way of the scenery.
Ozymandius indeedius—what’s falling apart here, Rome or Woody Allen? By weird coincidence, on a recent Mad Men episode, a young ad copywriter flashed his portfolio and boasted “Look upon my works, ye mighty.” Someone else in the room snapped, “Read the rest of the poem, you boob.”