For close to a decade, Woody Allen has indulged in a whistle-stop tour of Europe, creating an intriguing if erratic body of work. London both enriched (Match Point) and stymied (Scoop; Cassandra’s Dream) the 77-year-old auteur’s storytelling; the Spanish countryside (Vicky Christina Barcelona) and the romantic charms of The City of Light (Midnight in Paris) produced films considered by some to be career highlights.
the impact of the film’s geography on the plot is negligible
The latest leg of his continental odyssey touches down in Italy, or more specifically, its capital. Allen, who steps in front of his own camera for the first time since 2006 (he appeared as himself, uncredited, in this year’s little-seen Euro-indie, Paris-Manhattan), is part of an ensemble that includes Jesse Eisenberg, Alec Baldwin, Ellen Page, Judy Davis, Alison Pill and Greta Gerwig.
As the cast list suggests, Allen’s clear aim seems to be to relate the experience that US visitors have while touring/studying/working in The Eternal City. Even when Roberto Beningni appears, or a crisis of faith develops between photogenic but anaemic newlyweds Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi, it’s in the service of celebrity/paparazzi-themed parodies – pretty easy targets in the style-obsessed city.
Of course, 'The Yank Abroad’ angle has been the structural base of Allen’s best Euro-efforts, but in those films, the 'essence’ of each locale was crucial to the narrative’s tone. In To Rome With Love, Allen is just telling dimension-free love stories that riff blandly on infidelity, longing, passion and, of course, neurosis. Barring shots of The Colosseum and perfunctory mentions of Naples and Sicily, the impact of the film’s geography on the plot is negligible.
The script is clunky, too. Married couple Allen and Davis, are bound for Rome to liaise with their daughter (Pill) who has become engaged to ultra-leftie 'do-gooder’ lawyer (Flavio Parenti); their dialogue (he embodying his patented 'neurotic old Jew’ archetype, and she a smug psychiatrist) seems largely improvised and entirely false, not unlike sitcom banter. It’s lazy and forced; Allen seems to be rushing to an end goal, bored with the means and method of arriving there. He appears remarkably disengaged with his surroundings, as does cinematographer Darius Khondji, who fails to capture any flavour in his lensing (unlike is work on Midnight in Paris, which was sublime).
Best served are Alec Baldwin, whose wise, wary interactions with his symbolic younger self (Eisenberg) on the topic of blind love offer the script’s best moments, and Penelope Cruz as Anna, the red-dressed hooker whose very presence ups the intensity of every scene she’s in. But there is no avoiding a cynicism that permeates much of the film. Cheating, be it giddy and sweet or tawdry and secretive, seems to be all that Romans do. Love in Allen’s Rome is rarely without consequence and often, it would seem, best avoided. But that suggests the film has some greater importance when, in fact, it is a minor work from the great director. Allen’s Roman sojourn results in little more than a series of fanciful vignettes, occasionally insightful and not without the odd chuckle, but mostly just rather silly and inconsequential.