I know I haven’t been blogging about new and current releases as much as usual, and I’m sorry for that. It’s just that multiplexes are relatively empty right now, in preparation for a certain superhero movie coming out this Friday. Additionally, I’ve been so caught up in my birthday festivities that I haven’t had a lot of time or money for a trip to a theater. Still, there’s a bit of arthouse-cleaning to be done before we get hit by the July 20th tidal wave.
For example, I admit that I’ve taken my sweet time getting around to To Rome with Love. This was a rather glaring oversight, considering all the box-office money, awards nominations, and trophies picked up by Midnight in Paris last year. Surely, this means that Woody Allen’s follow-up would be of immense interest to anyone following awards races and/or arthouse cinema.
But is To Rome With Love any good? Honestly, I’m still not sure how to answer that.
First of all, everything that was great about Midnight in Paris is still great in To Rome with Love. The cast is solid, the visuals are sterling, and the screenplay is sensational. Even better, this film doesn’t have a character nearly as annoying as Rachel McAdams’ in Paris, which was one of that film’s major problems.
However, unlike the previous film, this one doesn’t have a single plot. It has multiple storylines, all of which stay resolutely separate. Interlocking storylines are the rule in such films, but these storylines absolutely never cross paths at any point in the movie, not even in passing. This means that instead of building to one huge climax, the film has several lesser climaxes spread throughout the third act. It’s very weird, from a structural standpoint.
The dialogue on display is uniformly fantastic, but the plot has oddities that will certainly divide audiences. Every storyline (with one debatable example) has at least one thing about it that’s nonsensical, unexplained, or just flat-out doesn’t work. Granted, the time traveling device in Paris was totally unexplained, but that film was an overt fantasy. Going into this film, I had the impression that it was going to be set in a more grounded reality.
Thinking about it more, however, I came to realize that this movie is very much a fantasy. When you get right down to it, each storyline is about characters who get once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Whether it’s finding love, getting a chance at wealth, having a tryst with a celebrity, becoming a celebrity, or carrying out a lifelong dream, nearly all of the main characters are faced with the dilemma of what to do when they apparently get everything they want. It may not be the kind of “fantasy movie” we’re used to, but it’s clearly a fantasy movie nonetheless. Not that it excuses all of the film’s weirder liberties, I’ll grant you.
At this point, there’s nothing more to say about the film as a whole. The only way to proceed any further is to break down the various storylines and to review them all as their own individual movies. After all, given how none of them relate to each other in any way, that’s pretty much exactly what they are.
The film opens with Hayley (Paris alum Allison Pill), a tourist from NYC spending a summer in Rome. She meets Michelangelo (pronounced “MEEK-el-ahn-jel-o,” played by Flavio Parenti), a lawyer who frequently travels between Rome and NYC. The two of them fall in love with alarming speed, and they’re engaged before the summer is out. So naturally, Hayley’s parents come flying to Rome so they can meet the soon-to-be-in-laws.
Hayley’s mother is Phyllis (Judy Davis), a smart-ass psychiatrist. Her father is Jerry (Woody Allen himself), a neurotic and eccentric man who retired after staging some ill-advised and “high-concept” reinterpretations of classic operas. These two have the absolute best dialogue in the whole film, bar none. Though Jerry does tend to ramble a lot, his one-liners and quips are hilarious. Even better, Phyllis can never resist taking the piss out of her husband, and their banter is pure comedy gold.
Anyway, as Phyllis delights in pointing out, Jerry equates retirement with death. As such, Jerry persistently feels upset that he couldn’t churn out one financially successful and artistically relevant work before retiring, which (to his mind) means that he’s going to die a failure. This obsession with material success inevitably leads to clashes with his future son-in-law, who feels strongly about workers’ rights and works strictly as a pro bono attorney. So, in Jerry’s words, Michelangelo is a communist.
There’s also Michelangelo’s father (Giancarlo, played by Fabio Armiliato), who works as a mortician. Since Jerry is squeamish with the idea of retirement — which, remember, equals “death” in this instance — there is initially a great deal of friction between Jerry and Giancarlo. But then Jerry hears Giancarlo sing in the shower, discovering that the latter has a beautiful tenor voice. Where Giancarlo sees his voice as a source of personal amusement, Jerry sees it as his one last chance to put on a great opera. So Jerry has to coax his new colleague into sharing his gift with the world for fun, profit, and personal fulfillment.
At this point, two things should immediately spring to mind. First of all, what happened to the young couple? You know, Hayley and Michelangelo? They sure got sidelined in their own story pretty darn quickly, didn’t they? Secondly, Jerry is a total asshole. Despite all of his rhetoric, he’s clearly using Giancarlo as a means to his own end, whether the latter is willing or no. The guy doesn’t even spare a thought as to how Giancarlo or his family is feeling about all of this.
Jerry is a self-centered and short-sighted prick, but at least the film is eager to call him out on it. The vast majority of this storyline’s humor comes at Jerry’s expense, usually when the other characters are insulting him. There’s also a bit of self-degrading humor, in which Jerry doesn’t know how much of an idiot he looks like.
Finally, I’ll admit that this was the only storyline which didn’t strain my suspension of disbelief or set off my bullshit meter. There were a couple of iffy points, but I won’t address them here for how minor and spoilery they are. It still gets on my nerves that Hayley and Michelangelo went from main characters to supporting characters so quickly, though. Allison Pill deserves better.
2. Leonardo Pisanello
This is the story of Leonardo, a perfectly ordinary middle-class schmuck played by Roberto Benigni. He’s a guy just going about his everyday life until, completely out of nowhere, the guy gets bombarded by paparazzi. Suddenly, the whole world wants to know what Leonardo had for breakfast, whether he wears boxers or briefs, which hand he uses to scratch his head, and whether or not God exists. Women find him irresistibly attractive, he never has to wait in line, he never gets a moment’s privacy, and no one bothers explaining why. Leonardo himself — and we, the audience, as well — are completely in the dark as to why all of this is going on.
First of all, people care to an obsessive degree about Roberto Benigni. That should be clue enough that this is a work of fiction. I’ll grant, however, that Benigni’s casting lends a great deal of credibility to this man who achieved celebrity status and had no idea of what to do with it.
Secondly, this is a one-joke premise, and that one joke got really old, really fast. The paparazzi are invasive, everyone worships the ground Leonardo walks on, Leonardo acts totally clueless, rinse and repeat. It got painfully annoying, particularly when it became obvious that we were never going to get a reason for any of this. At one point, I came within an inch of shouting “WHY?! Why, why, why, WHY?!” repeatedly at the top of my lungs.
However (again, much like Paris), this film finally came together near the ending. It took almost the entire running time, but Allen finally threw us a bone and explained that the entire thing was a satire on celebrity culture. When seen through that lens, it totally works. Such a pity that we had to get through so much incoherency before we got to that point, though.
3. Jack and Monica
This storyline opens with John (Alec Baldwin), who spent his college years in Rome. He’s now a world-renowned architect, currently on vacation to visit his old stomping grounds. By chance, John bumps into Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), an architecture student currently living with his girlfriend (Sally, played by Greta Gerwig) in John’s old apartment.
At this point in the proceedings, much like with Hayley and Michelangelo, John goes from being a main character to a supporting character. It’s actually even worse than that, since I’m not sure John qualifies as a character after this point. From here on in, John randomly appears out of nowhere to provide Jack with wisdom and to act as his voice of reason. Nobody questions the fact that he pops out of thin air at inconvenient times, and nobody seems to notice when Jack and John have perfectly audible conversations with each other. Sometimes the other characters acknowledge that John is there, sometimes they don’t. To sum up, what the fuck?!
Anyway, Sally brings in Monica, a young aspiring actress played by Ellen Page. The two of them are best friends, and Monica just flew into Rome after breaking up with her last boyfriend. We’re told early on that Monica is a very sensual person, and we see first-hand just how abundantly candid Monica is about her bisexuality. Additionally, Monica seems to know a surprising amount about the things that Jack is passionate about.
The dilemma here is whether or not Monica is too good to be true. For one thing, Sally seems unusually eager to trust her boyfriend alone with a woman who — by Sally’s own admission — easily gets guys to fall for her. It’s never entirely clear if Sally is just that oblivious, or if she’s actively trying to match her boyfriend with her best friend for whatever reason.
As for Monica herself, she fits the description of a seductress on paper, but she seems just candid enough to possibly be authentic. It’s a tricky balancing act, and Page plays it well. I’d also add that Eisenberg does a fine job playing this movie’s young surrogate for Woody Allen. Last but not least, it counts for a great deal that Eisenberg and Page make a very cute couple.
For this storyline, the big problem is the ending. To put this as simply as I can, the storyline ends with absolutely no progress made, and with none of the characters developing in any way. The whole thing was entirely pointless. Gah.
4. Antonio and Milly
Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are a pair of newlyweds. They’ve come to Rome on their honeymoon, with intentions of settling there and staying in the long term. To ensure that, Antonio has arranged for some face time with his wealthy relatives and their even wealthier acquaintances. The idea is that if he and his wife make a good enough impression, Antonio could have a high-salaried job in Rome and they’d both be set for life.
Unfortunately, Milly goes out to prepare by looking for a salon. She gets lost in the process and loses her cell phone to boot. Since the lovers have split for the time being, they essentially go into their own separate storylines through most of the film.
Shortly after Milly leaves, a prostitute named Anna (Penelope Cruz) enters Antonio’s hotel room. Anna claims that some anonymous benefactor has paid her to fulfill all of Antonio’s dreams and fantasies for the entire day. She never explains who paid her, and we never learn who she was supposed to service instead of Antonio, so there’s your outlandish plot contrivance for this storyline.
Anyway, Antonio’s relatives see him with Anna, so he now has to pretend that Anna is his wife. As time goes on, Anna — and we — learn just how high-strung and unhappy Antonio is. Eventually, Anna has to teach Antonio to loosen up a bit.
There’s a fair bit of humor here, and Tiberi does a lot to make the character sympathetic. Cruz turns in a surprisingly good comedic performance, and seeing her in skimpy clothing is never a bad thing. Other than that, there isn’t much here to write home about.
While lost in Rome, Milly improbably runs into a movie shoot, where she meets some of her favorite actors. And they seem unusually willing to show Milly every hospitality. In point of fact, international superstar Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese) seems eager to start a liaison with Milly after learning that she’s a huge fan.
Obviously, there are credibility problems with how Milly so conveniently happens upon such a high-profile shoot. I also take some issue with Antonio Albanese being cast as a sex symbol. Other than that, this storyline is okay. Everyone has at least one celebrity crush, and the question of what we’d do if we actually had the chance to have sex with them is an interesting one, particularly for those who are married. Mastronardi plays the character’s dilemma in a very endearing way, and the storyline ends in a way that’s very surprising and quite funny.
In short, To Rome with Love is a mixed bag. Some of the storylines are better than others, but none of them are entirely masterpieces or complete misfires. They’re all flawed, but flawed in different ways. Almost all of them stretch suspension of disbelief in some way, and a few of them woefully mishandle their characters, but that’s about it. On the other hand, the film was very funny. Even if the plot didn’t always make a lot of sense, the humor was wonderful throughout (particularly between Woody Allen and Judy Davis), and the storylines were juggled masterfully.
If you’re in the mood for something light-hearted and romantic, go rent Midnight in Paris. If you liked that movie, I’m sure you’ll find something here to enjoy.