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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 6 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 27
Overstuffed Rome a disappointing afterthought
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Overstuffed Rome a disappointing afterthought

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

TO ROME WITH LOVE Opens July 6

After reaching a recent high with the Academy Award-winning Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen, the hardest working writer/director in Hollywood, returns with another star-studded affair, this one an ensemble multi-story comedy that attempts to look at love in all its stages and bewildering guises. But whereas his last film tapped into something special, becoming a universal saga of what it means to live in the now and embrace one's current reality for the magical wonder it is, To Rome With Love is something of a mystifying - sometimes glorious, oftentimes annoying - failure. The movie never finds its footing, and while it's certainly not Allen's worst film ever, it is unlikely to be well-remembered.

Renowned American architect John (Alec Baldwin) is vacationing in Rome, returning to some of the same streets and neighborhoods he resided in back when he was a wide-eyed student learning his craft. Near his old apartment he runs into Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a pleasant young man oddly following in many of John's footsteps. He's got a live-in fellow graduate student girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig), whom he supposedly loves. But when Sally's best friend, a self-possessed young actress named Monica (Ellen Page), comes for an extended visit all bets are off, John seeing numerous commonalities as Jack enters into a passionate, yet almost certainly doomed, affair.

Elsewhere in the city, newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) have come to celebrate their honeymoon as well as see him set up in a cushy high-profile job facilitated by his well-connected, extended family. But while she gets lost on the streets of Rome looking for a salon, he ends up the victim of mistaken identity when a sexy, and expensive, prostitute (Penélope Cruz) enters his bedroom. One thing leads to another and Antonio is forced to pass her off as his wife while Milly finds herself having lunch with cinematic legend, and noted Lothario, Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese) - each encounter having a gigantic impact upon the couple's potential for future happiness.

But that's not all. There's also Leopoldo Pisanello (Roberto Benigni), an Italian nobody who's famous for being famous, stalked by the paparazzi while his opinions about breakfast foods and shaving techniques lead the nightly news. At the same time, Jerry (Allen) and his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) have come to Rome to meet their daughter Hayley's (Alison Pill) fiancé Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Jerry, a retired classical music producer, is sure he's discovered greatness when he hears Michelangelo's father, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), singing opera in the shower.

There's a lot going on - too much, if you ask me - and I can't help but think that if Allen had edited himself a bit this might have been gloriously entertaining. But the shifts between vignettes are clunky and haphazard, and sometimes it's hard to get a feel for exactly what Allen is trying to say or what his ultimate point is. Just as I was getting absorbed by one story, getting wrapped up inside its whimsical nuances, the filmmaker would shift gears and spotlight another tale, and the more times it happened the more annoyed I became.

I did love the subplot involving Antonio and Milly, their dueling escapades bordering on heavenly. I also found Allen's treatise on modern celebrity culture centered on Leopoldo to be prescient and spot-on, using Benigni's droopy hound-dog façade to perfection. Both these stories kept me transfixed, and whenever the focus switched away from them it was all I could do to keep from yelling at the screen.

Of the other storylines, the one focusing on Jerry, Phyllis, Hayley, Michelangelo, and Giancarlo is potentially the most interesting, but the absurdist idiosyncrasies integral to it are so over the top I had trouble caring what was going to happen. It didn't help that none of these people (other than Giancarlo, who's impossible to dislike) are ones I'd ever want to hang out with, let alone get to know intimately - all of them so self-absorbed inside their own little worlds and beliefs that more often than not I wanted to slap them.

Then there's John's flight of fancy revolving around his mysterious relationship with Jack. Parts of this are divine, ascending to the same mystically metaphorical heights reached by Midnight in Paris. Other aspects drove me crazy - some of the conversations between John and Monica are close to insulting. Baldwin is excellent, with many of his verbal asides and karmic witticisms hitting the bull's-eye, but this tangent never reaches its emotionally satisfying potential, making it easily the film's most frustrating subplot - mainly because it could have been its best.

Closing in on 77, Woody Allen shows no signs of slowing down, still putting out roughly a movie a year and traipsing around the globe bringing in international stars of all stripes as he does so. He's still a fascinating auteur, one whose every film is automatically a must-see. But in the case of To Rome With Love, one can't help but wish Allen had slowed down and edited himself a bit before proceeding to principal photography. The movie is overstuffed and vague, and while the better elements are wonderful the lesser ones irritate, making the final product a disappointing afterthought in the career of a filmmaker we all know can do much better.

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