Last year Woody Allen achieved a highlight in his career with the release of his charming, whimsical, and absolutely endearing romantic comedy Midnight in Paris. It was an unexpected hit for the director, becoming a greater box office success that any of his earlier movies, and winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay – Mr. Allen’s third, after Hannah and Her Sisters and Annie Hall. For fans of his earlier work, Midnight in Paris was a welcome return to the years when Woody Allen’s films maintained a level of quality and purpose not seen in most films, commercial or otherwise, leading us to believe that perhaps he’d reached a turning point in what has – in recent years – become a more jumbled and inconsistent body of work. And for those fans, I regret to say, To Rome with Love is exactly the reverse of what we were expecting.
Telling the stories of five individuals who journey through and worry among the ruins of Rome, the film focuses on their respective stories as held against one another, even though the time spans of their plots vary from one story to the next: a newlywed couple settling into their hotel suite are separated when the wife goes out to find a beauty salon and gets lost; meanwhile, the husband is approached by a prostitute, who mistakes him for her client and whom he must pretend to be his wife when a group of his hoity-toity, judgmental relatives drop by. Meanwhile the wife stumbles onto a movie set and is seduced by the film’s star. Elsewhere, a young architectural student is dizzied by the arrival of his girlfriend’s attractive friend Monica, who he lusts for under the gaze of sort of older, more experienced version of himself. Also, there’s the everyman who – out of nowhere – suddenly becomes famous for no good reason at all; and then there’s Woody Allen himself, playing the soon-to-be in-law of a man with an exceptional operatic voice, who he tries desperately to produce into a sensation as a final triumph in his career as a music director.
It pains me that I haven’t a single positive thing to say about this movie. Even while Woody Allen has admitted that the five stories have no relation to one another, the lack of an underlying thread between them leads to a sense of pointlessness, especially given the lack of cohesion that is generated from this mismatched format. It all turns into nonsense, and not even brilliant nonsense – the writing is unbearably cheap, second-rate and obvious. Characters’ information is fed to you like a spoonful of medicine – without the sugar – and the plot moves along like a sour taste sliding down the throat: you can’t wait for it to be over with but the icky taste stays in your mouth for an obnoxiously long period of time. There’s no allowance for decent performances within the confines of such a negligent script, and so we reach the unhappy realization that Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Alec Baldwin and Penelope Cruz were effectively misled into wasting valuable working time with what to an actor could only have sounded promising – a Woody Allen project. Finally, it simply isn’t funny.
The fact that this project came to be only after Mr. Allen received the offer of funding from a single Roman source – which allowed him the money to finance a production under the stipulation that whatever movie he make be set in Rome – makes it clear, to me at least, that old Woody is not so much interested in spending his time in the development of thoughtful and worthwhile stories as much as he is interested in simply keeping busy. It is my personal suggestion to the director that he concern himself first and foremost with quality rather than his on-going effort to produce one movie per year. The man hasn’t taken a year off since 1976, and it might do him some good to accept a vacation as well as a moment to consider just where it is he’s headed creatively. More to the point, if Woody Allen ever hopes to be remembered as anything more than the epitome of the troubled neurotic – which, in all honesty, it may be too late to keep from happening – he needs to take on a more responsible stance when it comes to his artistic output. As far as this movie goes, To Rome with Love is a poor way of recommitting himself to that ideal in filmmaking that so many of us have loved him for. Please Mr. Allen, don’t break our hearts.