Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page in 'To Rome With Love'
Rating: 2 stars out of 5
Much has been said about Woody Allen’s admiration of the legendary Italian director Federico Fellini. After his recent celluloid flirtations with London, Barcelona and Paris, the prolific 76-year-old New Yorker finally sets his sights on Rome, Fellini’s hometown.
Allen’s 46th directorial effort, ‘To Rome With Love’revives certain elements of omnibus films that were loved by Italian masses in the 1960s. The box-office formula was simple — a single idea, three to seven light-hearted narrative vignettes and an ensemble cast of big names.
Fresh from the success of the surreally delightful, time-travelling caper ‘Midnight in Paris’, Allen’s latest offering had high expectations to meet but doesn’t quite match up. It is a mediocre film comprising a portmanteau of four random stories meditating on life, love, relationships and celebrity culture set in the Eternal City.
Nostalgia goes all cheesy touristy from the start: the movie opens with this narrator, a officious Roman traffic policeman in full regalia including white gloves, who postulates about the numerous stories taking place in the city while unwittingly causing an accident.
With such a clichéd opening sequence, it was little wonder that Italian critics unanimously panned this film, but to be fair to Allen, it was made for a predominantly non-Italian audience and he has never claimed cultural authenticity for his films set outside America. On that note, more clichés follow, such as the tourist board porn of generous golden hued visuals of familiar Roman landmarks like the Spanish Steps, the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain and Villa Borghese.
But the lavishness of Rome just doesn’t rub off into the four individual vignettes, which are interwoven but not connected chronologically (some episodes happen in a course of a day while other plod on for months). Moreover, the vignettes are largely devoid of plot, depth or humour and made the 112-minute film feel like an eternity. The collective acting talent of the cast is never pushed into the limit, and one can hardly feel for the heavily contrived, one-dimensional characters that inhabit this cinematic world. Genuinely funny one-liners and signature quirky observations are rare. It just seems suspiciously like a work-in-progress by Allen.
Penélope Cruz and Alessandro Tiberi
So what ensues here: two of the stories are based on American visitors while the other two concern Italian characters. One story centers on the complicated romantic life of young American architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who is in Rome for a crash-course on its architectural marvels. He lives with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) but his faithfulness is tested when her best friend forever, a self-absorbed wannabe Hollywood starlet, Monica (Ellen Page) comes to live with them. While traipsing around the streets, he bumps into John (Alec Baldwin), a jaded, middle-aged American architect who specialises in malls. With little warning, the films moves into ‘magic realism’ territory, as a psychic Jack appears and disappears at will to offer relationship wisdom. Does anyone really care if he is a fantasy voice or a wandering spirit?
The other American thread features the return of Allen to the screen since playing a magician in ‘Scoop’. This focuses on neurotic Jerry (Allen), a retired classical record producer, and his sarcastic wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) who come to Rome to meet Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), their daughter’s lawyer fiancé. Jerry is not impressed with Michelangelo and his family, but things change when he overhears his father Giancarlo (opera tenor Fabio Armiliato), a mortician who is a world-class singer in the shower. We can’t help but conclude that this episode continued Allen’s famous blurring of his private and public personas explored in various films. Some of the film’s snappiest one-liners and woeful repartees were also found here.
The more substantial Italian offering features a sex comedy of sorts. Newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberian) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are visiting Rome so his affluent relatives can be formally introduced to her. But the couple become separated as she gets lost in the city and has a Fellinisque chance encounter with her favorite soap star (Antonio Albanese). Meanwhile, Anna (Penelope Cruz), a vampy high-class social escort, distilling the spirit of 1960s Sophia Loren, arrives by mistake at the couple’s rooms and is passed off as Milly when the relatives arrive. Clearly, Allen was trying to make the point that a little infidelity does no harm for long-term matrimonial bliss.
The final episode focuses on Leopoldo Pisanello (Roberto Benigni), a typical everyman who becomes famous for no apparent reason. Culled heavily from a media infatuated with celebrity culture, this one-note satirical sketch is fatuously strained despite a remarkably nuanced effort from the overacting guru of all time.
If you are looking for vintage Woody Allen, you would be much happier renting his classics from the 1970s, but if you just want a lazy night out munching popcorn in the cinemas, give this a pop then.