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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: To Rome with Love

Warning: Minor spoilers contained herein. But really, it doesn’t matter.

Like many of you, I have a love-hate relationship with Woody Allen that’s not unlike my love-hate relationship with Nic Cage. Both Allen and Cage have this infuriating thing they do where they’ll make a film that makes you go, “Wow! Now THAT’s why I love Woody Allen/Nic Cage!” and then Nic Cage will turn around and make some steaming pile of dung like Knowing or Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and Woody Allen will make some mess like To Rome with Love that doesn’t quite gel, and you sigh and shake your head. But you forgive them, you don’t hold a grudge forever just because Nic Cage has a flaming skull for a head or Woody Allen’s made an episodic clunker. Hell, everyone’s entitled to a bad day, right?

One of the four interwoven (but not intersecting) vignettes in To Rome with Love features Allen as Jerry, a retired opera director who discovers that his soon-to-be son-in-law’s simple mortician father is secretly a brilliant tenor — so long as he’s singing in the shower. In many ways this character feels like vintage Woody Allen, so much so that a forgiving audience might be inclined to play along and chuckle appreciatively when he tosses off a one-liner about being afraid to fly because he’s an atheist. Judy Davis plays Phyllis, his psychiatrist wife, which allows Davis to drily shoot off some lines of her own that sound like they might have been culled straight from one of Woody Allen’s therapy sessions. Not that I’m saying Woody Allen needs therapy, but it’s easy enough to imagine him talking through screenplay ideas while reclining on a psychiatrist’s couch, isn’t it?

The underlying theme of To Rome with Love, I guess, is supposed to be about chance, and the way people’s lives get shifted or set in motion by random happenings. So Jerry’s daughter Hayley (Alison Pill) and her fiance, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), meet cute when she stops him to ask directions, thus setting in motion the events that lead to Jerry hearing Michelangelo’s father singing in the shower. Roberto Begnini shows up in another segment as an everyman whose life is turned on end when he inexplicably finds himself an instant celebrity being hounded by paparazzi and pop press — a segment that could have, with a bit more attention paid to the writing, been very clever. Hell, by all rights it should have been brilliant: Begnini is a comedian gifted at the farcical, and Allen himself has certainly had enough experience dealing with celebrity to have some smart things to say about it. Instead it feels tossed off, awkward, as if Allen just told Begnini to take the idea and run with it, but never quite nurtured it enough to make it come together properly.

The weakest bit involves a drawn-out, insipid tale of a naive newlywed couple who get separated in an unfamiliar city by perhaps the most contrived set of circumstances ever written in a Woody Allen script. Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi), the wife, leaves the hotel to get her hair done before dinner with some of her new hubby’s uptight relatives, gets lost, loses her phone, and blah blah blah blah eventually falls into bed with a movie star and a burglar. Oops, I hate it when that happens to me. But it’s all okay because her brand-new hubby not only bangs Penelope Cruz (it’s okay, she’s playing a hooker, and she was already paid for) AND passes said hooker off as his wife when his uptight relatives walk into his hotel room (without knocking? Who does that?) when he’s in his boxer shorts and accidentally in bed with her.

And then there was the bit I found to be both the best segment of the film, and the most infuriating by virtue of the potential it had that wasn’t developed. It revolves around architect John (Alec Baldwin), visiting the city where he lived briefly in his 20s, who randomly meets Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young architect who lives in the same neighborhood where John once lived. Jack lives with Sally (Greta Gerwig), who’s a nice girl. So nice that you know Jack’s going to do something to screw it up — which he does, of course, when Sally invites her femme fatale friend Monica for a visit. Jack may or may not be John’s younger self — I thought it was obvious he was, but the older couple next to me was having a spirited debate about that point on their way out of the theater.

Now the second biggest problem this vignette has is the casting of Ellen Page as Monica. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ellen Page, and on the surface she has the frank, open delivery that the part calls for. But this part also calls for someone a little more sultry, who when she talks about a lesbian encounter you can picture that happening and it makes you feel all tingly; Page just can’t deliver on that here. The biggest problem with this vignette, though, is that it really needed to be the entire film, that it needed to be for Rome what Match Point was for London, and what Vicky Cristina Barcelona was for Barcelona, and what Midnight in Paris was for Paris.

If Allen had focused just on this story, and cast Scarlett Johansson — ooh! — or maybe Elizabeth Olsen, instead of Ellen Page in the part of Monica, and if he’d taken the time to hone it the way he’s certainly capable of, he could have had something much closer to great Woody Allen here than what he ends up with by stitching together four half-baked ideas, and it’s that — that loss of the potential to do something great — that I find truly frustrating here. Allen works at this impressively frenetic pace, churning out films right and left as if, like Jerry, he’s trying to fend off death and retirement with work. Maybe from a film history perspective it will be more interesting fifty years from now to compare Allen’s lesser works to his greater ones, but dammit, at this point in his long and prolific career, I just care more about Woody Allen making what he thinks is the best film he has in him than tossing out a mediocre one. And this just isn’t quite his best.

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5 Responses to “Review: To Rome with Love”

  1. Steven Kaye says:

    Time for another MRI, my darling, because it looks like your brain tumour’s starting to affect your thought processes.

  2. Krillian says:

    Kaye’s returned! Woody’s personal publicist/basement-slave!

  3. Kim Voynar says:

    Really, “Steven Kaye?” What, every critic who doesn’t go ga-ga over every single thing Woody Allen makes needs an MRI now? We’re all supposed to be acolytes who just look at everything written and directed by him without a critical eye and worship at the altar just because? I don’t think so.

    I absolutely refuse to believe that Woody Allen looks at this film and honestly thinks it’s among the best he’s made. It’s just not. And he’s too damned smart and (one would hope) honestly self-critical enough not to know that. Doesn’t mean he’s not one of our most brilliant and prolific filmmakers, or that I don’t tremendously admire the man’s body of work overall. Even geniuses have a bad day.

  4. Proman says:

    A better and more ambitious film than Midnight in Paris (which is also great). And what a terrific sense of presence. I loved it. The acting is top notch, especially on the part of the Italian actors.

    This is a kind of difficult, sometimes rough but wholly involved work that MAJOR DIRECTORS make. It is very, very good.

  5. Pierre Stefanos says:

    Actually Kim, I’d quite agree with your MATCH POINT, VICKY CRISTINA, MIDNIGHT assessment. Part of the problem with Woody being so determined to put out a film every year is that the scripts don’t always get fully developed, and this one felt undercooked to me too. Very enjoyable film, but yeah, had there been a more sultry tone with Elizabeth Olsen or ScarJo, it could have allowed Rome to be the character it was in those other three films. Just with a different ending than the one in the Page/Eisenberg story – that one was rather dull for me.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon