/ to rome with love
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Woody Allen does not make films for me; at least, not anymore. The prolific writer/director defined the New York state-of-mind in the mid 1970s, giving a satirical voice to the disingenuous artist, the pseudo-intellectual, and the neurotic Jew in all of us. While Match Point may have proved an unexpected tonal shift for the ho-hum capers and mundane musings of the 90s, it also hinted at hereto undemonstrated skill from a director often too happy to sit on his laurels. It was something of a short-lived Renaissance, culminating in 2011’s Midnight In Paris: a sharp, engaging love-letter to the City of Lights, and Allen’s most commercially successful film to date. His follow-up, To Rome With Love, is a similarly themed city-centric comedy, mixing elements of fantasy, romance, and absurdism with his trademark brand of wry wit. Unfortunately, while ‘Midnight’ showed the director at his most neurotic fun, Allen’s exportation of the Eternal City is a return to bland mediocrity.
To Rome With Love follows four separate stories set in and around the titular city: A celebrity architect (Alec Baldwin) takes a stroll down memory lane; Italian newlyweds suffer a comedic separation; a boring businessman (Roberto Benigni) becomes inexplicably famous; and a retired music producer (Allen) attempts to transform a shy mortician into an operatic superstar. Each story is separate and without relation to another, taking place across a number of different timeframes and locations. With no thematic link between each narrative (beyond, perhaps, the tentative unity of ‘romance’, or ‘ambition’), the film is reduced to a cavalcade of famous faces (Judy Davis, Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg, and Penelope Cruz) waltzing through famous Roman landmarks. The characters are all uniformly obnoxious, and while there are a handful of laughs to be had, the coherent wit of Allen’s previous work is sacrificed for a sketch-style structure, relying too often on scatological observations and lame punchlines.
Allen is in danger of becoming a director without a voice. As his age advances and his proliferation increases, there seems to be no filter between the quality of his output and the quantity. To Rome With Love has nothing to say about any of its characters or narratives, besides trite homilies like ‘Be careful what you wish for’ or ‘Pride comes before a fall’. Even more distressing are his views on romance, which have become either the product of a supreme cynic, or a satirist lacking the necessary comedic juice to do so. His return to the screen (as the father of Alison Pill’s love-struck tourist) is initially met with laughs at the old Allen shtick, nervous and bumbling and full of self-righteousness. This caricature, however, cuts a little too close to the bone, as his retiring music-producer embarks on an absurd final effort to prove his relevance… the irony of which feels both sarcastically intended, and unintendedly true to life.
If you’ve never been to Rome, the film does a fine job of presenting the Trevi Fountain, Vatican City, the Spanish Steps, Palentine Hill, et al, in gloriously alluring sun-drenched tones. Being primarily funded by a Roman distribution company, the film makes hardly any effort to disguise the fact it is, in essence, a handsomely photographed advertisement, where characterisation and narrative play second fiddle to the sights on offer. The film’s original title, ‘Nero Fiddles’, would’ve perhaps been more fitting: much like the eponymous mad emperor, Allen has no compulsion to save his film from drab artistic cliché, playing his own tune as the city goes up in smoke.