Woody Allen has a long history of following his most masterful creations with misfires, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his first film since Midnight in Paris — the biggest hit of his career — is the most feebleminded, forgettable movie he’s ever made. But it does.
The juxtaposition is nothing short of jarring. I didn’t watch To Rome With Love; I gaped. I couldn’t believe that what I was seeing was so stilted, haphazard, meaningless and borderline amateur hour. Not to mention almost never funny.
The last stop on the legendary writer-director’s world tour (he returns to New York and San Francisco for his next project), the picture is set in the Italian capital and composed of four interwoven, though unrelated, stories. Each is as meandering and pointless as the next, so we may as well begin with the one in which Allen himself appears.
He plays a retired opera director in town to meet his daughter’s (Alison Pill) fiancé and the fiancé's parents. The high points of the vignette include a pair of gags that would have wound up on the cutting-room floor in any previous Allen production. One has Allen’s character claiming he was “ahead of his time” because he once staged Rigoletto with the cast dressed as white mice (huh?). The other consists of his overhearing his prospective in-law (real-life tenor Fabio Armiliato) singing in the shower and resolving to promote him as opera’s next big thing. The problem is, the fiancé can only sing in the shower. See where this is going? No, really, it does.
In a different part of town, which seems more like a parallel universe, Roberto Benigni plays an ordinary schlub who awakes one day to find himself inexplicably famous. The paparazzi follow him everywhere, asking what he had for breakfast, whether he sleeps on his back or his belly. In one scene, a television crew films him as he shaves. It’s such an obvious and tired comment on reality TV culture that one hopes against hope Allen’s script will surprise us by the end of the segment. And it does, but only with the blandness of its observation. He actually has a character say to the baffled star, “You are famous for being famous.”
It gets worse. Newlyweds from a small town arrive in the big city looking for a new start, only to wind up in a hokey bedroom farce. Something to do with Penélope Cruz as a hooker and the loss of the wife’s cellphone. This is the man who wrote Crimes and Misdemeanors. It never occurs to Allen that she could call her husband’s cell using a land line?
That leaves us with the thread in which Alec Baldwin plays a famous architect whose path crosses that of Jesse Eisenberg. The latter is an architecture student who lives with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) on the very street where the older man resided decades before. I guess Baldwin’s character recognizes a younger version of himself. This might account for the way he shadows his new friend, popping up to offer advice on matters of love in a manner likely to strike you as pervy or as a clumsy exercise in magic realism, depending on your point of view. Either way, you’re not likely to laugh a whole lot or find much in the way of fresh insight. Now, if Baldwin had been cast as the paparazzi-plagued Benigni character, we might have had something.
Unfortunately, we don’t. Except for a major letdown. A waste of a lot of great talent and scenery. The low point in one of the cinema’s most remarkable careers. Let’s hope the filmmaker returns to form with his return to the States. In the meantime, I wouldn’t make any plans for a Roman visit. The city may not truly be eternal, but, even at a running time of 109 minutes, Allen’s latest makes it seem that way.