Woody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’ is Episodic, Choppy

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 3.5/5.0
Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Writer/director Woody Allen continues his film travelogues in “To Rome with Love,” touring The Eternal City with four separate vignettes. An all-star cast – including Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Alec Baldwin, Penélope Cruz and Woody himself – hit and miss with this varying blend of stories.

The four stories have Rome as their backdrop, and the city looks gorgeous under the cinematography of Darius Khondji. Gazing at such a film and its locations make up for the lesser story situations, and overall makes it worth seeing. Allen also mixes Italian actors with the familiar American cast, which gives it a credibility and yes, a touch of Federico Fellini, although he had explored that more overtly in “Stardust Memories” (1980). When this film works, it is familiar and funny Woody, and even when it’s not as good it generates some laughs that are worth experiencing.

There are four stories happening simultaneously during a period in the modern city of Rome. One involves native city dweller Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), as a bureaucrat who finds his life disrupted by sudden and inexplicable celebrity. Another follows an American named Jerry (Woody Allen), a retired opera director who is visiting his daughter in Rome and discovers a once-in-a-lifetime opera sensation with Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato, a real-life Italian singer), the father of his potential son-in-law.

Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg
The Mentor: Alec Baldwin (John) and Jesse Eisenberg (Jack) in ‘To Rome with Love’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Another vignette features Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), an American architect who is living with Sally (Greta Gerwig), a student from the U.S. She invites her friend Monica (Ellen Page) to stay with them, and the feelings Jack develops for Monica is peppered with advice by an American stranger named John (Alec Baldwin). Finally, a story features Italian newlyweds (Allesandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) who discover unfamiliar marital territory when a prostitute named Anna (Penélope Cruz) is mistook for the new groom’s wife.

The two best stories are the opera star discovery and the architect torn between two lovers. Woody Allen carries the opera story, and his character Jerry is kind of a low-key version of his popular movie character. Judy Davis as his wife Phyllis is also terrific, and the joke about the action that makes Giancarlo sing best is carried out to a wonderfully absurd degree – the opera “Pagliacci” will never be the same. Coming in second is the love triangle story, but Alec Baldwin’s insertion sometimes doesn’t work. He comes off as both an imagined apparition and a real person. That lack of clarity makes the story clunky but enjoyable.

Bringing up the rear are the two stories about the native Italians, interestingly enough. The pitfalls and advantages of celebrity were much better done in Allen’s previous films “Celebrity” and the aforementioned “Stardust Memories.” Roberto Benigni (“Life is Beautiful”) can’t help portraying his character in his comedic tics that can be annoying – and the conclusion is obvious. Allen also seems to love casting Penélope Cruz much better than the characters he gives her. Allessandra Mastronardi as the newlywed bride saves this story, her combination of sweet naiveté and wide eyed joy (in landing on an Italian movie set) lessens the lead balloon of her husband and the prostitute.

Woody Allen casts his films well, with a few exceptions in the film. Greta Gerwig is notable in a small role as Jack’s student girlfriend, displaying a nice comic timing in a small and almost thankless role. Jesse Eisenberg combines his tenor with that of an early Woody-type character, and is able to milk the laughs effectively. Flavio Parenti, as the future son-in-law of Allen’s Jerry character, holds himself up well as a ultra lefty Communist. It’s telling that Allen himself has always come off as left wing, but against a Communist even he is conservative.

Roberto Benigni
Stopping Traffic: Roberto Benigni (Leopoldo) in ‘To Rome with Love’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Allen’s use of Penélope Cruz as a prostitute named Anna was a bit sticky in execution. The story of mistaken identity, and Anna’s persona as above-it-all, belonged in another type of parlor comedy. Alessandro Tiberi, as the nervous newlywed, didn’t mesh with the relationship as well, and their scenes together become the weakest link in the film. Cruz is much better with director Pedro Almodovar than she is with the style of Woody.

Mostly this comedy is light, a dedication to a city that Allen can add to Venice, Paris, London and his native New York City. To paraphrase his famous end joke in “Annie Hall,” say what you will about the morality or comedy of Woody Allen, but he continues to deliver the eggs.

“To Rome with Love” continues its limited release in Chicago on June 29th. Featuring Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Judy Davis, Alec Baldwin, Woody Allen, Roberto Benigni and Penélope Cruz. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2012 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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