Having delved into a selection of European cities such as London, Barcelona and Paris, Allen turns his attentions to the Italian capital city of Rome, where we focus on a host of characters, engulfed in narratives surrounding the themes of romance, betrayal and the celebrity culture of the contemporary world. We follow the engagement of young couple Hayley (Alison Pill) and Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), coping with the burden of playing host to Hayley’s parents Jerry (Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis).
We also delve into the life of Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who falls for his girlfriend Sally’s (Greta Gerwig) best friend Monica (Ellen Page), despite the advice given to him from his temporary mentor John (Alec Baldwin). We also follow the failing marriage between Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) – put under threat accidentally by prostitute Anna (Penélope Cruz), as well as focusing on Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), who, unbeknown to him, has become a national celebrity overnight.
Although in many respects To Rome With Love is a conventional Woody Allen picture, full up with the nuances and surrealistic aspects that define the masterful film maker’s work, this film does feel somewhat different to his usual style, as he appears to be taking a braver approach than usual. For starters he exceeds his traditional 100 minute curfew, in turn for a feature that is almost two hours long. He also has scenes in subtitles – as both the Cruz and Benigni narratives are presented solely in Italian, whilst – and wait for it – he also uses the ‘F’ word. I know.
To Rome With Love is also satirical in parts – again not necessarily something we associate with Allen’s work, as he takes a surreal and somewhat barbed look into celebrity culture and how absolutely anyone can become famous for doing nothing whatsoever. Allen also displays the shallowness of the culture from a different perspective, and how a seemingly happy marriage can become a victim of adultery following the mere introduction of someone famous.
However despite any refreshing or unique aspects to this feature, it falls at the same hurdle the majority of Allen’s European ventures do – as once again he struggles to capture the essence of the city he is covering. He simply feels like a tourist in Europe – as he fails to truly grasp Rome, just as he failed to do so in both Vicky Christina Barcelona and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, where he also failed to truly embody the ambiance of either Barcelona or London, respectively.
If you take Allen out of his comfort zone (New York), we never truly feel as though we are being provided the full and genuine Woody Allen experience. You only need to watch Manhattan for five minutes to tell that he simply understands New York and its character. Perhaps that is why Midnight in Paris actually worked so well, as it’s entirely fantastical and devoid of any realism, thus taking the sting off the fact he doesn’t fully engage with the setting.
Another issues is that this is an ensemble piece, and there are so many characters and different narratives it becomes difficult to emotionally invest in any one in particular. The cast however, are mostly impressive with Eisenberg and Baldwin two of the stand out performers. However the star of the show is Mr. Allen himself – allowing himself the majority of comical moments and witty one-liners. Only criticism with him – is that he’s simply not in it enough. Meanwhile, Page is evidently miscast, not fully getting to grips with the supposedly seductive and beguiling character of Monica.
To Rome With Love is not a bad movie, not by any means – it’s just too forgettable and passes you by somewhat. Had this been made by someone else I may have left relatively impressed, it’s just that the director’s incredibly high standards and reputation that precedes him, ends up working against him, as you inevitably compare his new productions to the Allen of old.
You know at the beginning of Play it Again Sam, where we witness a bewildered Allen, astonished as he watches the final moments of Casablanca. Well that’s usually how I look at the end of a Woody Allen film, but sadly that just isn’t the case on this occasion. Instead, if you turned on the lights at the end of To Rome With Love, all you would see is the face of a film critic, overcome with a frustrating sense of unfulfillment.