Perhaps we were spoiled with last year’s Midnight in Paris, auteur Woody Allen‘s return to (delightful) form after a few years of basically forgettable, minor efforts like Whatever Works, Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream, and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Suffice to say, Allen’s next cinematic trip to a classic, romantic European city has come complete with heightened expectations, and while his To Rome With Love occasionally harnesses some of the charm and ease of Paris, it’s a wholly different film experience, and a less enjoyable one to boot.
Much like Paris, Allen has lined up a sizable and talented cast for his latest outing, though he’s chosen Rome as his own spin on throwaway rom-coms like New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day and the far superior Love, Actually, instead of focusing on a single leading character. Allen uses the city of Rome as the (often only) link between all manner of people – Italians, Americans, young, old, famous, common, talented, sexy, unsexy, ambitious, bored, confused, the list goes on – and lets them play out their theatrically-tinged trials and tribulations against a gorgeous Roman backdrop. It’s frothy and fizzy enough, but To Rome With Love isn’t the sort of film that is likely to leave a lasting impact on its audience. It’s popcorn entertainment for the indie set.
Despite its title, To Rome With Love isn’t solely focused on love, though its best tale is. In it, Jesse Eisenberg and Greta Gerwig play a pair of American students living, working, and studying in Rome. Their stable happiness is up-ended when Gerwig’s best pal, Monica (Ellen Page), arrives for a visit and immediately proves to be alluring to Eisenberg (just as Gerwig’s Sally feared). It’s no shock that Allen would inject some romantic intrigue into the most young-skewing portion of the film, but it is disappointing that he’s dispatched this particular set of talents for the job. His young stars are all gifted thespians, but their section of Rome relies on romantic chemistry that’s just not there in either incarnation (and, really, Eisenberg, who doesn’t have chemistry with Greta Gerwig?). Fortunately, Allen has built some unexpected delights into the Eisenberg-Gerwig-Page triangle, and it benefits immensely from those choices (just count on Alec Baldwin to make some welcome appearances during Eisenberg’s emotional kerfuffles).
The film also includes sections dedicated to Roberto Benigni as a regular man who longs for more (and gets it, and quite unexpectedly and amusingly) and a pair of newlyweds who move to Rome with big dreams (and who, actually, almost get it, and react accordingly). Allen blends his American cast with his Italian one in his own starring portion – Allen co-stars as Judy Davis‘s husband and Alison Pill‘s dad, a former opera director who also gets an unexpected chance at greatness when he and Davis visit their ex-pat daughter. Pill is engaged to an Italian who comes from a nice family, led by a patriarch with a hidden talent that Allen’s Jerry is more than happy to exploit, no matter the ridiculous lengths he has to go to make it happen.
But despite a large and talented cast of characters, Allen is significantly less concerned with making big connections between them than most other films of Rome‘s ilk would attempt (though stuff like Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve have shoe-horned in such connections, and often to nonsensical ends), which takes away from some of the real pleasure of this mini-genre: the discovery of who is who to who and what and why (simply put, sort of). Each of Rome‘s sections could easily play on their own, though the whole film is able to present a much more full take on the themes Allen is trying to address with his picture (mainly the meanings and repercussions of fame, talent, and fidelity). Yet, it’s no coincidence that the film’s best section, in addition to playing on the charm and spirit of Midnight in Paris, is also the only portion of the film in which Allen even attempts to blend together disparate characters, made even more interesting and delightful with some clever riffs on time, space, and memory. The rest of the film should be this effortlessly charming (read: it’s not, and damn if some of it doesn’t start to drag, particularly in the film’s last half).
Woody Allen concludes his semi-European tour with an amiable companion piece to his utterly lovely Midnight in Paris and, while To Rome With Love is not the through-and-through charmer that its Parisian cousin is, it’s fluffy enough to serve as a welcome enough diversion for Allen fans old and new. It’s a bouncy trifle that allows Allen to explore some of his favorite topics in a more light-hearted fashion, but while it cooks up a number of laughs and more than a few great performances, it’s nothing less than a minor effort. It’s worth a watch, but not the lauds Paris picked up this time last year.
The Upside: Solid performances by Baldwin, Allen, Penelope Cruz, Davis, and Alessandra Mastronardi, among many others; trademark Allen neurosis and wit; beautiful scenery; a stand-out section that stars Eisenberg, Gerwig, Page, and Baldwin.
The Downside: Runs too long; film would benefit from connections between sections; only shows very touristy side of Rome (when it has a real opportunity to show Roman life in a more honest light).
On the Side: The film was previously known as both The Bop Decameron and Nero Fiddled. Neither Boccaccio or Nero appear in the film, shockingly enough.