Woody Allen is a truly beloved yet controversial director with a long and, for the most part, successful career. He has made a film almost every year since 1969, and because of this productiveness, his contemporary films are inevitably compared to his earlier works. Love him or hate him, there is no doubt he has influenced Hollywood and modern cinema greatly.
Despite the fact that his earlier films were set in America, his work has always been hugely popular in Europe; perhaps this is why in recent years, since 2005’s Matchpoint, he has regularly set his movies across the Atlantic. He has enjoyed success with films such as Midnight in Paris, where Parisian literary nostalgia captured viewers’ hearts, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona in which Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz’s onscreen passion seduced the audience. Unfortunately, To Rome with Love has failed to capture viewers and critics in the same way.
The film tells four independent American/Italian stories, all set in the picturesque Italian capital and introduced by a traffic cop standing in the Piazza Venezia. In one tale of boy-meets-girl, an American woman and an Italian man get engaged, resulting in a cultural clash when their parents meet. Another story centers on the architecture student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who in a very Woody Allen way, falls in love with his girlfriend’s charming best friend Monica (Ellen Page). This storyline approaches the surrealism of Midnight in Paris, as the characters discuss their problems with an imaginary architect, John (Alec Baldwin). Then there is the narrative of two Italian newlyweds, separated for a day and so living out their fantasies; his including a prostitute (Penelope Cruz). Finally, there is a portrait of an Italian everyman, Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), investigating how he becomes “famous for being famous” and how he deals with the negative impact of this on his life.
Allen’s work provides some comic relief and has a promising start. However, the film’s disjointed storylines don’t really develop or conclude as they should, despite its decent length. Crucially, there are too many characters, and their limited screen time takes a toll as none are properly developed.
Every viewer will have a preferred narrative; but there may be a consensus on the least interesting. Leopoldo’s tale starts with real humour, but eventually comes to drag on; and not even Roberto Benigni’s great talent (as demonstrated in Life is Beautiful) could compensate for the absence of plot. The huge cast contained some great talent, but as the characters were so poorly realised, the actors didn’t have much to work with and are thus underused.
To Rome with Love is a decent film that can easily be enjoyed and provides a decent break from the summer blockbusters, but with the contrived structure and its negative impact on plotting, it never reaches the iconic heights of the better Allen films. Perhaps Woody should return home from his trip around Europe and set his next film in New York – wouldn’t that be a nice change!