There’s a scene toward the end of “To Rome with Love” where Woody Allen’s Jerry lectures his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis, “The Break-Up”) to refrain from assessing his behavior, saying, “Don’t psychoanalyze me! Many have tried. All have failed.”
To Rome With Love
At the Michigan
Yet if one were to analyze him, he or she might ask Allen why he feels compelled to crank out a different movie every year. Why he doesn’t simply take a brief hiatus, play some clarinet and write a script that reads like a few others had a hand in it instead of looking like the first ideas he put to paper.
When we first meet Allen-as-Jerry on-board a plane from New York to Rome, clutching the armrests out of fear, the feeling is akin to meeting an old friend, someone you’re glad to see regardless of the circumstances. He complains about the turbulence. He expresses fears of death. He bickers with his spouse. It’s classic Woody, and the audience’s laughter says it all: This is a character we enjoy spending time with. But Allen’s onscreen persona is quite different from the man behind the camera. And the latter, who’s also the writer, has made a film that, though at times charming, lacks cohesiveness.
Set in Rome, Allen’s latest film presents numerous independent storylines that explore the mystery, glamour and seduction of the “Eternal City.” Jerry, a retired opera director, and his wife Phyllis are travelling to meet their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) and her new Italian fiancée Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti, “I Am Love”) whom she met while spending the summer in Italy. As the young lovers’ families get to know one another, Jerry learns that Michelangelo’s undertaker father Giancarlo (real-life tenor Fabio Armiliato) is an amazingly talented opera singer — except he can only sing in the shower. In an attempt to emerge from retirement Jerry persuades a reluctant Giancarlo to share his talent with the musical world.
Meanwhile, John, (Alec Baldwin, “Rock of Ages”) a successful architect on vacation, is reminded of a conflicted past when he crosses paths with Jack (Jesse Eisenberg, “The Social Network”), an architecture student living with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig, “Arthur”) and her seductive actress friend Monica (Ellen Page, “Inception”). Other storylines include Roberto Benigni (“Life is Beautiful”) as a befuddled simpleton, who inexplicably steps out his front door one day only to be mobbed by the paparazzi as one of the most famous men in Rome.
The plots don’t overlap and the time frames for the different narratives range from a single day to several weeks. Of course, these aren’t requirements, but they do make the movie difficult to follow at times as we jump from storyline to storyline, wanting a bit more from each character, but never getting enough.
The film is best when Allen simply lets the camera rest on his actors for an extended period of time, a mise-en-scene reminiscent of “Manhattan”, “Annie Hall” or the more recent “Midnight in Paris”. Watching Baldwin counsel Eisenberg and Page on matters of the heart he wishes he’d known as a young person is both hilarious and poignant — the kind of dialogue Allen’s always been known for.
While the template for a classic Allen movie stays consistent — the jazzy soundtrack, the panoramic shots of the city, the verbose conversations about life and love — it’s not always a guarantee for success. In fact, sometimes it can feel like the template takes center stage, as though Allen’s more interested in proving he can still do his own thing, regardless of whether or not his films actually appeal to anyone.
Granted, there will be always be the Woody-philes, those who’ll follow the auteur to the ends of the earth, who claim he can do no wrong. Unfortunately, when you place a greater emphasis on being prolific rather than the quality of product you’re bound to be hit-and-miss. Some say you need to examine his body of work and not judge each film by itself. But movies should stand alone, even those that come from an artist as legendary as Allen himself.
Though “To Rome with Love” is still filled with Allen’s derisive wit, stating maxims such as celebrity is preferable to layperson and life trumps death, they feel forced, not like they’re emerging from the story, but rather from the creator himself.
There’s nothing wrong with profound messages or a script with parallel parts in its structure. Except this time around that’s pretty much all there is: a structure, a skeleton with little substance to flesh it out. What might have been a decent movie from someone else doesn’t make the cut when it’s a part of the Woody Allen canon. We expect more from the most recent winner of the best original screenplay Oscar. We expect the stuff that makes us quote the movie to friends for years to come. Allen’s done it before; if he took some more time between pictures he could likely do it again.