Not Much Love for Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love”

I adored Woody Allen’s last film, “Midnight In Paris”. You can read me ranting and raving about it a year ago on this very blog. It was a film rooted in a warm, romantic feeling of nostalgia that was only lightly tainted by cynicism. There were laughs, there was love, and the characters were likable even when they were mere caricatures of twentieth century American literary giants. In “Paris” Gil Pender was just as much in love with the city as he was the enchanting Adriana; the setting for the film added more character than some of the actual characters. And it worked its charm oh so well.

When I first saw the trailer for Allen’s next foray into European city-based flicks, I was ecstatic to see that he had chosen Rome, a city that I visited once on a week-long trip with a number of friends. I was nineteen years old and it was my first time in Europe. I dabbled in absinthe, loved the food, and even enjoyed my own sickeningly romantic, star-crossed tryst. It was everything I could have hoped for in a Roman holiday. Needless to say, I had high hopes that Allen could deliver another poetic tribute to the Eternal City along the same lines as what he did for the City of Light. And he didn’t. It was honestly a pretty huge letdown.

There is this dreamlike quality to the Parisian montage that opens “Midnight In Paris”. Cafes, monuments, Paris in the rain. I was hoping for another similar prologue featuring some Piazzas, the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain. But in “To Rome With Love”, we are granted a few parse shots before honing in on a simple traffic cop who is directing cars in a rotary/piazza. He gives us some generic narration in broken English about how great Rome is and how he sees it all as the lovers come and go. It’s boring and falls flat almost immediately, making me wonder if Allen was trying harder to embarrass Romans than glorify their city.

Rather than focus on one plotline, “To Rome With Love” wanders between somewhere around four stories that clumsily weave together. And rather than have independent vignettes one after another, these stories just sort of fall together. A middle-aged, middle-class man (Roberto Benigni) wakes up one day to randomly be a celebrity; a sell-out architect (Alec Baldwin) wanders back to the haunt from his youth and coaches a young man through romantic troubles; a young Italian couple on a honeymoon vacation gets separated; and a random man is an amazing opera singer but can only sing in the shower. Intermingled with this is another plot, in which the opera singer’s son is engaged to an American girl. Woody Allen himself plays the girl’s father, visiting to celebrate the engagement. And of course, his character is in the music business and coerces the shower-singer to perform naked on stage in a simulated shower. Then there’s also the complication that the Italian newlywed couple gets separated for a day to each eventually go on and have separate affairs. And the architect’s story has nothing to do with him; he instead stumbles upon a younger architect (Jesse Eisenberg) living with his girlfriend who winds up having an affair with her visiting friend (Ellen Page). It’s a complete and utter mess of people in failed or failing relationships who just do what they want without really wondering about how their actions will affect anyone else. By the end of the movie, we really aren’t sure if we should like anyone, with Alec Baldwin being the only possibility. And even then, we’re not even sure if he’s real! (but more on that later…)

For about half the film, the separated newlyweds are the most interesting part of the movie. The groom is paranoid about impressing his potential new employers and accidentally winds up having to spend the day pretending that a wizened prostitute (Penelope Cruz) is his wife. He’s nervous and she laughs it all off. The whole situation is really funny actually. The main reason for this ruse is because the bride leaves to get her hair done only to lose her way and then her cellphone. After the bride is gone for hours, the prostitute wanders into the wrong room and gets caught with the groom by some stiff-looking aunts and uncles. The groom (allegedly) has no choice but to pretend the strange woman is his wife! Meanwhile, Romans left and right give the bride ridiculous directions that not even they could possibly understand. For a time, this adorable Italian girl is positively enchanting in her sundress, all dewey-eyed and lost and pouting. But then out of nowhere she winds up fawning all over some pot-bellied movie star and she starts to lose likability.

Woody Allen seems to spend all his screen time basking in his own intelligence, reveling in his neuroses in a purely masturbatory, pseudo-comedic performance that comes off as more self-absorbed and annoying than anything else. He complains and says ridiculous things that only the oldest people in the movie theater would laugh at. He bullies a humble funeral director into singing and only complains more or blames other people when things go wrong, even shoving his own wife towards an incoming knife to protect himself at one point.

Of course, Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg play versions of Woody Allen at different stages of his life. Baldwin is hysterical as always, somehow making pompous be charming. Eisenberg is bumbling and jittery, afraid of his own shadow yet somehow able to be direct and passionate. When Eisenberg’s girlfriend’s friend visits, the new girl is annoying, hyper-sexual, pedantic, a pseudo-intellectual, and selfishly manipulative. She’s a temptress, having come a long way since getting knocked up by Paulie Bleaker, and does it all for the attention. Bizarrely enough, after a realistic few scenes in which Baldwin is invited in for a cup of coffee, his role inexplicably shifts from welcome guest to an omnipotent advisor that follows Eisenberg around warning him about the naivete of youth. For the most part, nobody else can see him. He just sort of sits on the sidelines like the angel on your shoulder or some kind of imaginary friend, scolding or advising as he sees fit. At one point the two architects even bicker that Baldwin ruins a “scene” by interrupting. Odd, right?

Easily the most confusing and intriguing story is how a random, average citizen one day just becomes a celebrity. On his way to his car, a reporter just sort of points at him and screams, “Hey look at that guy! What is he doing!?” In a furious flash, dozens of reporters are interviewing him on his shaving habits, what he ate for breakfast, and every last detail of his mundane day. He’s invited to movie premieres, flirts with models and movie stars, and is constantly being harassed, hounded, and interviewed by paparazzi and reporters. At first he hates the attention, then he loves it, then he gets sick of it, and when it’s finally gone and the world has moved on to some other random person, he misses it so much he goes nearly mad.

When the man asks his former chauffeur what happened, Woody Allen tells us the entire point of this ludicrous plot through the man’s words: “Life can be cruel whether you’re a regular person or a celebrity…but it’s always better if you’re a celebrity!” Really? That’s the take-home message we are supposed to have here? It’s insulting, as if Allen is saying that no matter what we do, life sucks and people are cruel, but if you’re a celebrity at least you have money, fame, and attention, so that makes it just a little bit better. So at the end of the day, it’s like he’s waving a big flag in our direction just to remind us that he thinks he’s better than us. All in all, this entire story makes people seem like idiots in the way they obsess over celebrities, trying to devour every detail of their lives for no reason at all when at the end of the day, no matter how famous, a person is still just a person like everyone else with their own problems and needs.

“Midnight In Paris” was able to handle the vaguely absurd by feeling more magical than anything else. “To Rome With Love” is just absurd for its own sake and doesn’t seem to make a point out of it all or have any coherent morals or themes. The little that it does say is spelled out so overtly and cynically that its more likely to depress its viewers than show them some truths about human nature. It’s a really interesting premise that had a lot of potential but it gets bogged down by a lack of likable characters. We can’t blame the acting by any means; everyone was pretty spot on. If anything, we ought to blame Woody Allen’s mixed messages and shifting moods that he has in his old age. “Paris” brought out his romantic optimism, and apparently “Rome” brought back that biting cynicism. What a shame.