I’m a pretty recent convert to Woody Allen fandom. I’d seen one or two of his movies when I was younger, but I wasn’t particularly blown away. I watched Annie Hall because it was always ranked among the top comedies of all time and didn’t much care for it. My tastes were not as sophisticated as they are now –I was expecting more obvious jokes rather than his dry sense of humor. I just didn’t get him or what the hoopla was about. I was also turned off by the perception of his fans as pretentious intellectuals and the scandal involving his now wife. I understood the “Woody Allen persona” enough to get jokes about his neurosis, which was good enough for me. It wasn’t like a lot of my friends were fans either, so the issue really didn’t come up.
However, when PBS’s American Masters aired a documentary about Allen, I decided to tune in. I generally really enjoy their programs and I was curious as to what I would learn about Allen. It turned out, I learned quite a lot. I was fascinated with his life and with all the movie he had done – I knew he had done a lot, but I had vastly underestimated his prolificness. His directing style was also interesting and I understood why so many actors loved working with him – he leaves them alone and lets them do their thing. I found a lot of the clips from his movies funny; I finally got him now that I was a grown up. He was much more relatable. I started to seek out his movies and saw a bunch in a short amount of time. I don’t like the slapstick films as much, but the rest I really enjoyed, especially his New York films. My goal is to see them all. I thought Midnight in Paris was delightful and rooted for it at the Academy Awards. I’d now consider myself a Woody Allen fan, though I still have much of his catalog to work through.
To Rome With Love was the first Allen film to open since my affinity for his films developed and I was anxiously awaiting its release. Despite its all-star cast, the film is a step down from Midnight in Paris. It was still very pleasant and amusing, but it wasn’t his best work.
The film features four separate stories that intercut, but do not intersect. One story follows an architect (Alec Baldwin) who takes a walk down memory lane with the help of Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page. Another follows a case of mistaken identity with Penelope Cruz and a couple on their honeymoon (this segment is almost entirely in Italian with subtitles). Woody Allen and Alison Pill are featured in the story of an American family meeting their daughter’s fiancé and future in-laws for the first time and Roberto Benigni deals with becoming an instant celebrity. You get the feeling while watching the film that these were four stories that Allen didn’t think he could make into a full movie, so he threw them all together. They all seem a little underdeveloped and not quite finished. This is less noticeable because of the way the film jumps back and forth between stories, but it is still evident. The four pieces are all mostly amusing and entertaining – I preferred some to others – but are just slightly undercooked.
The acting is very good throughout the movie and it is impressive that with such little time spent with the characters that they are as real and established as they are. That speaks well to the writing and the skill of the actors involved. It was nice to see Woody Allen back up on the screen; he has generally relegated himself to behind the camera in recent years, but he is always a lot of fun. I don’t think Roberto Benigni has done much since he won the Academy Award for Life is Beautiful in 1997 (you might remember him climbing over the seats to get his award) so it was a surprise to see him in the film. He’s a little too over the top for my taste, but I’m sure he was glad to have some work and get the chance to remind people that he is still acting. His story was my least favorite, as I felt it was too repetitive and went on too long. And I was pleased to see Allen continuing to work with a younger generation of actors. I think he and Jesse Eisenberg could be a formidable collaboration and it is always great to see Alison Pill. Penelope Cruz and Alec Baldwin are always solid, as were many of the Italian performers who were new to me.
I did realize that I am just not an Ellen Page fan. This is something that has been simmering for a while, but this movie clinched it for me – I just don’t like her. I’m not 100% sure what it is about her that I find so bothersome (it might be her voice), but I am a lot less invested whenever she is on the screen. She’s not necessarily a bad actress, but whatever my issue is with her I’m just not able to see beyond it. It’s unfortunate because she was in my favorite of the four stories. I’m just over her.
Visually, the movie is striking and uses the inherent beauty of Rome to the best effect. I have a particular soft spot in my heart for Rome, as I visited the Eternal City when I was 15. Not only was it my first trip to Europe and my first vacation without my family, it marked the first time I had ever been on an airplane (luckily it turned out I wasn’t afraid to fly or that would have been a long 8 hours). I don’t think you can spend any time in Rome and not fall in love with it; the architecture and the plentiful history are enough to take your breath away. To Rome With Love did focus on the more touristy areas of the city, but they are also among the most picturesque. Any movie that takes place in Rome fills me with a rush of fond memories; I may be the only person who liked Hudson Hawk (a 1991 Bruce Willis bomb), solely because a portion of it was filmed there. To Rome With Love reminded me that I really need to find the time, money and travel companion to make another trip. Since I threw many coins in the Trevi Fountain, my eventual return is guaranteed.
In my opinion, even a lesser Woody Allen film is still enjoyable, so though To Rome With Love is not his best offering there is still much to recommend. If you are a fan of his work, you will find many moments of humor in To Rome With Love despite the fact that it is not quite as charming or complete as Midnight in Paris. The movie is a trifle, but despite some of its flaws I left the theater happy. Unless you are a die-hard Allen fan, it is probably not necessary to see in the theater. But it is definitely worth a look and did nothing to sully my burgeoning affection for him and his movies. I’m already looking forward to his next cinematic offering, which will bring him back to the U.S. (it will be filmed in San Francisco) and will feature Louis C.K. Based on that information, it seems that movie will be tailor made for me.