Prior to 2005, when he was a strictly New York kind of guy, Woody Allen’s batting average was quite high. From 1969’s Take the Money and Run to 1987’s Radio Days, Allen pumped out an unbroken string of classic films (1987’s September was his first seriously meh effort). Even figuring in misses like 1998’s Celebrity and 2003’s Anything Else, you could put him at about a .750—pretty high for a guy who’s put out at least one movie a year since 1969.
In 2005, though, the Woody we know and love more or less retired, abandoning his beloved Manhattan for the allure of the Continent. His first post-NYC film, Match Point, took its inspiration from London. It was a topnotch, career-revitalizing effort. Unfortunately, the follow-up films have dropped Woody’s average well below .500. These days, he’s become little more than an elderly gadabout, sending the occasional eclectic postcard from London, Spain or Paris. Some are wonderful (the sublime Midnight in Paris), but most are instantly forgettable (Scoop? Cassandra’s Dream?). Sadly, his latest falls into the latter category.
The ensemble comedy To Rome With Love finds Woody, as expected, in sunny Italy waxing rhapsodic about love, sex, marriage and infidelity. For the price of admission, we get four unconnected stories of low-to-middling interest. The first revolves around a young American (Alison Pill from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) who meets and falls instantly in love with a handsome Italian lawyer (Flavio Parenti). She flies her constantly kvetching New York parents (Woody Allen and Judy Davis) over to meet his old-school Italian parents. Despite what you were thinking might happen in this situation, her dad becomes obsessed with his dad’s singing voice and needles him into pursuing a career in opera. It’s a pointless story that builds to a very silly climax and steals most of its ideas from that episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer became an opera star. It’s almost nice to see Allen on screen for the first time in six years—until you realize that Woody Allen “doing Woody Allen” adds up to little more than an overly familiar collection of vocal inflections, arm gestures and vaudevillian punch lines.
Next up, we’ve got Jack (Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network) and Sally (Greta Gerwig, Greenberg) as a couple of foreign exchange students in love. One day, Sally’s best friend—a sexpot Hollywood actress with whom all men fall instantly in love—shows up at their doorstep. As telegraphed, Jack falls in love. Did I mention the sexpot actress is played by Ellen Page (Juno)? I’m assuming somebody wrote the wrong name on the casting sheet, because Page is monumentally miscast here. There’s not much else to this predictable love triangle—except that Alec Baldwin drifts through occasionally as a world-famous architect dispensing romantic advice to Jack. For reasons known only to the film’s writer-director, Jack goes from arbitrary interloper to ghostly narrator, popping out of nowhere and offering omniscient, overly philosophical comments on the storyline.
This is the sort of tale in which characters gas on about Rilke and Kierkegaard—and they’re not supposed to be annoying or pretentious. I’m not sure what impels actors to mirror Woody Allen’s stammering, hyper-articulate vocal inflections—but, man, is it annoying when they do. Eisenberg and Page’s characters are awful, grating people, and you won’t care a whit whether they hook up or not. Baldwin’s magically all-knowing character isn’t nearly hard enough on them.
Our third story finds a newlywed couple, Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi), visiting Rome for the first time. Through some wacky coincidence, she gets lost on the streets and he gets stuck in their hotel room with a molto bene prostitute played by Penélope Cruz. Through some even more wacky coincidence, Antonio’s required to pass the hooker off as his bride to relatives. This one’s pure, silly farce, revealing that for all his intellectual posturing, Allen sure does have a caveman’s attitude about sexuality. Who else, with a straight face, would imagine an intellectual comedy in which a half-dressed Penélope Cruz shows up at a guy’s hotel room offering free sex? The moral here: Adultery is great, fellas, you should try it sometime.
The final film in our quartet stars Roberto Benigni, who’s been somewhat absent from the film scene since his megawatt appearance in 1997’s Life Is Beautiful. He plays an ordinary Roman office worker who—for no reason at all—becomes the target of obsessive paparazzi. Cameramen and reporters ambush him on the street, recording his every move as if he were the hottest Hollywood celebrity. There’s a winking satirical attitude at play here, one that recalls Allen’s more absurdist humor (think back to Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*). It’s the one tale that almost works. But, like everything here, the jokes are thuddingly obvious. Punch lines sneak up on you with all the subtlety of a typewriter tumbling down a wrought-iron staircase.
Allen never nails down a consistent tone in To Rome With Love. It judders from surreal fantasy to over-the-top farce to shopworn romantic cliché. Emblematic of the film’s schizophrenia is the film’s opening narrator, a traffic cop who breaks the fourth wall to inform audiences he’s seen every story lurking in the Eternal City. After the credits, he disappears, never to be seen again. At the end, some other random dude shows up to narrate us out of the film. Obviously, Allen isn’t concerned with uniformity here.
Sure, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps look lovely. Yes, Rome is a very romantic city. Admittedly, it’s a pretty picture that Allen has captured on the front of his latest postcard from Europe. But what’s been scrawled on the back is nearly illegible. Send us another one when you get to Greece, Woody.