Director: Woody Allen
Screenwriter: Woody Allen
Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
Synopsis: Essentially an anthology film of Woody Allen shorts, To Rome with Love tells multiple stand-alone stories that take place in the titular picturesque city. There’s John (Alec Baldwin) who is an architect replaying the great love affair of his youth through Jack (Eisenberg) and the vivacious wannabe-actress Monica (Page), and there’s Leopoldo Pisanello (Benigni) who suddenly becomes a celebrity and soon starts to go crazy with all of the attention. Though each stories’ humor varies, they all offer a glimpse of a different facet of the city.
Analysis: Like last year’s Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love is a pleasant diversion that serves in large part as a visual love letter to a beautiful European city. Though Paris had one overarching, if simple, narrative, Rome has multiple. The film is structured as a collection of vignettes intercut but not really sharing any characteristics, save for location. Both in sensibility and approach, they are reminiscent of Allen’s short “Oedipus Wrecks” from another anthology films, New York Stories. Like that short and Paris, the stories in Rome are mostly played for their humor.
The film’s funniest story—and its most satirical—follows Leopoldo Pisanello. Through no action of his own, Pisanello suddenly becomes “famous for being famous.” He starts as a normal, working class guy who lives a content, if boring life with his wife and children. His life is so inconsequential that even his friends and family dismiss his opinions. And then bang. He becomes famous and everything he says and does becomes interesting. He’s invited to premieres and fashion shows, beautiful women want to sleep with him just to say they did, people are desperate to know his opinions on everything, even his morning shave is worthy of the camera. Though the scenarios in which Pisanello finds himself offer many of the film’s best laughs, the story also offers its most biting social commentary.
Pisanello’s story essentially becomes a criticism of the construct of fame as it is at this moment by satirizing the fact that anyone can now be a celebrity. That he is picked seemingly at random for fame is an exaggeration of the way entertainment forums like reality shows have given it an almost arbitrary quality. It is not through any creative or personal merit that Pisanello becomes famous, just the fact that the celebrity-making machine (journalists and the entertainment industry) make him important by giving him attention. This indictment of the modern concept of fame is interesting enough, yet Allen takes it into an even more thought-provoking level. Though Pisanello quickly tires of fame and complains of his loss of privacy, when the attention inevitably disappears he finds that he misses it. He grew accustomed to the attention and its absence is even more disturbing than its fervor. He is terrified to return to insignificance and his realization prompts one character to state that being famous is always preferable. It’s a fascinating examination of fame and probably could have filled its own feature film—a quality that could apply to many of the stories in the film.
As diverting as the individual stories can be a few could have made very enjoyable feature length films, and this format leaves the audience wanting more. Another standout involves Alec Baldwin as an architect who watches his younger self, John, act out his failed affair with an actress named Monica. As the lovers experience the affair, Baldwin’s older iteration of the character tries to warn his younger, Eisenberg-ian self. Yet the Eisenberg character isn’t the only one who hears him; when he criticizes Monica for her pretension, she fires an insult back.
This is also the section of the film most reminiscent of Allen’s earlier work, with the doomed love affair of Manhattan and the whimsy of The Purple Rose of Cairo. The concept is so interesting that it’s difficult not to want more. Eisenberg (finally fulfilling his destiny by essentially playing a young Woody Allen) and Page have an enjoyable chemistry, and John’s perfectly nice girlfriend (Gerwig) certainly deserved more of a say in the matter. The story simply begs for more time.
However, aside from the two aforementioned segments, the rest of the film is only mildly diverting, ultimately feeling rather pointless. The story involving Penélope Cruz as a prostitute begins as an enjoyable comedy of errors, but ends as a weak adultery fantasy. The short involving Allen and real-life tenor Fabio Armiliato has but one joke and plays it to death. For the most part, the shorts in Rome are like cotton candy – easily enjoyed at the time but lacking substance. It’s interesting to consider what the audience might have had if Allen had given some of the stories more time to play out. So while he has succeeded in adding another enjoyable comedy to his body of work, if some of the stories in To Rome with Love had been given their own film he might have had a handful of great movies instead.