They say a change of scenery can do a person good. For Woody Allen, it has certainly brought great things as his departure from New York has inspired wonderful films like MATCH POINT, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, and VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA. Like many other travellers, he has been inspired by the old world, and found life in its romanticism. However, getting out of town isn’t everything, and eventually you realize that extra spring in your step is gone, and now you just have a different view out your window.
TO ROME WITH LOVE tells us four separate stories.
We begin with Hayley and Michelangelo (Allison Pill and Flavio Parenti). They meet one afternoon when Hayley asks him for directions, and very soon fall in love. They get engaged, which prompts Hayley’s parents Phyllis and Jerry (Judy Davis and Woody Allen) to hop a flight and meet their extended family to-be. When Jerry meets Michelangelo’s father Giancarlo, he can’t help but sense opportunity.
Next we meet Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi). Just married and on their honeymoon, they happen to get separated. In the interim, Antonio is approached by Anna (Penelope Cruz), a high-class prostitute sent to the wrong room. As he attempts to reunite with Milly, she teaches him a thing or two about passion.
After that, there’s the moment John meets Jack (Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg). John is looking to remember some of the Roman experiences he has as a young man, and Jack is happy to let him tag along. As we meet Jack’s girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig), and her best friend Monica (Ellen Page), it quickly becomes clear that this experience will come with complications.
Finally, there’s Leopoldo (Roberto Begnini). He is an unassuming office drone whose life suddenly changes one day – seemingly for the better, but that’s up for debate.
Were I to hazard a guess, I’d wager that Woody Allen approached the stories in TO ROME WITH LOVE under the heading of “There are eight million stories in the naked city”. In theory, this is a wonderful idea since a world-class city like Rome lends itself well to so many different characters and threads. In a way, it feels like he wanted to do a shorter version of NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU or PARIS, JE T’AIME…but providing all the contributing tales himself. It might seem for a moment that such an idea would suit Woody Allen’s style, but the resulting film suffers from a curious double-dose of miscalculation:
The various narratives aren’t sprawling enough to consider the film an omnibus, and they lack the cohesion to consider them one multifaceted story.
Two of the tales work rather well, so we’ll start there. Easily the best of the bunch is the tale of Milly and Antonio. It has fun pairing up Milly’s absent-mindedness, and the sort of old-world directions that involve you turning a left after a fish market. As newlyweds, Milly and Antonio’s young love is still being fleshed out, so the nervousness they feel as they stumble into their predicaments mimics the trepidation a young bride and groom would in fact feel. It’s charming to see them both gain that extra dose of confidence thanks to unexpected encounters with older lovers.
This sort of unexpected romance is what one comes to a film like this wanting, and it doesn’t let us down.
The other story that succeeds just barely does so. While watching John and Jack discuss the ins and outs of Sally and Monica, that wonderful elder mentor dynamic that we get in the earlier story is once again brought into play. This time though, the curiosity of what it is that we’re seeing, and whose perspective we’re seeing it from adds a neat twist. Allen clearly had fun with the magical element of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, and couldn’t wait until his next chance to use it as a device. Everyone in this plot thread has a wonderful chemistry, and seeing the inhibitions get dropped while away from home brings yet another unconventional romance befitting the overall theme.
Unfortunately, that’s where the goodwill ends, and the fact that the two narratives have next to no connective tissue make it difficult to accentuate the positive.
The tale of Michelangelo and Hayley might have been better were it actually the tale of Michelangelo and Hayley. Unfortunately, with his first on-screen appearance in six years, Woody Allen hijacks the story away from his young actors. This thread isn’t so much ‘To Rome With Love’ as it is ‘From New York With Neurosis’. The idea of Giancarlo’s budding opera career (and Jerry’s role influencing it) isn’t just silly, it’s downright intrusive. It flies in the face of the relationships we’re watching unfold in all the other threads mentioned above, and even steals the spotlight away from Michelangelo and Hayley themselves.
Essentially, it’s as if Jerry took a moment during the happy couple’s engagement party to grab the mic and regale the guests with a story about what a weird board meeting he’d just came from. This is a real pity, since the culture clash lurking over Michelangelo and Hayley’s engagement might have been a better story for Woody to recount into that proverbial microphone.
But two out of three isn’t bad, right? Well, that would be the case if it wasn’t for the fourth – and by far the weakest – narrative.
The fable of Leopoldo and his curious brush with fame is odd, weak, and bitter. It arrives with no rhyme or reason, and departs with even less. Making it even weaker is the fact that it has nothing to do with the two main themes of the film. It’s as if all of these guests have been invited to dinner, are having a spirited discussion about love and Italian life, but this one belligerent guest keeps trying to inject his theories about fame into the conversation. Clearly, Allen is grumpy with the state of fame in the 21st century, but much of the points and positions that Leopoldo’s tale brings up feel “very 2003”.
Woody Allen has thrown all these ingredients into the pot and let them simmer for two hours. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever screwed up a sauce can tell you, it isn’t always that simple. Too much of one thing can spoil the whole meal, likewise not enough of another. Turn it up too high and it burns, keep it down too low and the ingredients never come together. That’s what Woody Allen has served us – a thin, watery mess. Every now and then, a spoonful of flavour comes through…but given how great of a cook Allen has shown himself to be in the past, this is a meal we just can’t be forced to swallow.