The thematically or location-based anthology film tends to be a loose limbed, flighty creature, a chance to sample the wares of multiple directors. Paris, je t’aime (2006) and New York, I Love You (2009), each linked by location and theme of love, provided stylistic nibbles of Alfonso Cuarón, Walter Salles, Yvan Attal, Mira Nair and many others. In his ragged To Rome with Love, Allen returns to the form of his 1989’s New York Stories, but skips the part where he shares directing duties with Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. It’s lazy, frivolous filmmaking—To Rome With Love has about as much intent as a vacation—but in spurts, gives real pleasure.
Although love features in the title and crops up in varying degrees in three of the four unconnected stories, it’s not the theme. In fact, if there is an overarching theme, I missed it. Two of the stories feature aging and regrets, including the best, in which an architect named John (Alec Baldwin) takes a trip down memory lane in the neighborhood where he lived 30 years ago. One stars Penélope Cruz as a prostitute (oh, Woody, another one?) who insists her time has been purchased for an Italian newlywed whose wife just stepped out to get her hair done. He begs to differ. Then there’s a random entry, an amusing but nonsensical commentary about the vagaries of fame, which features Roberto Benigni as an average white collar worker who becomes an overnight celebrity for no reason at all. You’d have to stretch very hard to find the interconnectivity between them.
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So maybe they all sit on the Spanish steps at the same time, or hit the same gelateria? Given Allen’s introduction, a cop directing traffic and speaking knowingly of all that he sees from his post, I had a hunch they’d all end up at the same intersection, having a fender bender. But there is no overlap. Even the time frames are all over the place. In most of the stories, days and possibly weeks pass, but in the prostitute storyline, which evolves into a caper with Cruz pretending to be the bride in front of the groom’s stuffy relatives, all the action takes place in less than a day.
So the only glue here, beyond the wit of Allen, is Rome. It’s easy to picture Allen shrugging his shoulders and saying, “So sue me, I like Rome.” (And Venice, featured so prettily in Everyone Says I Love You). Other things he likes: prostitutes, actresses (Ellen Page plays one), opera (Allen’s character stages a version of Pagliacci) and Baldwin, who gets all the best lines and is as crucial to the film as the golden light of Rome. That said, I’m still not sure if Baldwin’s John the architect is real, a ghost, or some sort of shade eavesdropping on the memory of his younger self, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who asks him at least once not to interrupt “a scene.” Unbidden, he counsels the younger man as he struggles with his attraction to his girlfriend Sally’s (Greta Gerwig) best friend Monica (Page). Whatever or whoever Baldwin is playing, he’s hilarious, all silky sarcasm, cringing over with the idiocy of the young. “I would do anything to spend the night with Howard Roark,” Monica tells Jack while they’re sitting in the Coliseum together. Baldwin rolls his eyes. “You saw the movie of The Fountainhead,” he scoffs.
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Alas, Baldwin’s path never crosses with that of Allen’s character, Jerry, who arrives in Rome with his wife (Judy Davis of the wry rejoinder) to meet their daughter’s (Alison Pill) new fiancé (Flavio Parenti) and his family. Jerry is a retired opera director, apparently infamous for his avant-garde productions (Tosca in a phone booth) and as soon as he hears the fiancé’s father Giancarlo (acclaimed tenor Fabio Armiliato), a shy mortician, singing in the shower, he’s ready to come out of retirement and make a star out of him. Most of the Jerry jokes are the same old-same old Woody Allen, references to shrinks and Freud and neurosis. But maybe because Allen, who turns 77 this year, hasn’t given himself a part since Scoop (2006) and the absence has made this heart grow fonder, but his delivery seemed sharper than ever. “I don’t know why I’m shouting,” he says at one point, with the air of a man who really did just catch himself doing something silly. “You’re two inches in front of me.”
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Everyone fell all over last year’s Allen offering, Midnight in Paris, because it had mood, clever performances and such an entrancing plot. While it is unlikely to stand the test of time, it set a higher standard than a lot of Allen’s late-career offerings, one which To Rome with Love can’t live up to. Other than Baldwin, Allen and Eisenberg—who is delightful—few of the performances are memorable. Page is miscast as a femme fatale, but adroit with Allen’s lines, but the other women, Cruz, Pill and Gerwig hardly register. But it’s Rome and Woody Allen and Alec Baldwin; I may have been mystified grappling with why nothing coalesced from the various narratives, but I didn’t suffer much trying.