Woody Allen has produced, and/or written and/or starred in nearly fifty films. He is prolific and prodigious. He is also inconsistent. Many of his earlier films such as “Sleeper” (1973), “Annie Hall” (1977), “Manhattan” (1979), etc. were ground-breaking, although not everyone’s cup of tea.
“Match Point” (2005) was a romantic crime drama that marked a high-water point in my appreciation of Allen’s film-making repertoire. This film was engaging and suspenseful — minimally dealing with the regular Woody Allen sexual fantasies that haave characterized many of his other motion pictures. The film’s final scene rivals any cliff-hanger drama. All of the films mentioned above are available through Netflix.
Fast forward to “To Rome With Love” (2012). While the neurotic and obsessive themes are still present, the beautiful and artistic dimensions so prominent in “Midnight...” are not. Rome is certainly a very photogenic city. While not as visually romantic as Paris, there are plenty of opportunities to create cinematic richness.
“To Rome…” did not. The action opens with an Italian traffic cop, replete in Italian para-military sartorial splendor, gesticulating traffic movement instructions from a podium in the middle of a busy “Roma” intersection. The traffic cop leads us into the film by telling us that he sees all people in Rome and witnesses their stories. Several unrelated, and largely pitiful, stories are played out by a cast which largely does not fit the characters they play.
Several stories are presented in alternating sequence. Each has some elements of humor and Allenesque insight — not enough of either, however, to make this a good movie. In the initial story Woody Allen miscasts himself as Jerry, father of Haley.
As the film opens Haley (Alison Pill) meets, falls in love with and plans to marry a handsome, young, politically left Italian lawyer named Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti.) Allen founders as Jerry because of his age (he looks more like a grandfather than a father), and his brand of humor which fails to match the generation he portrays. His humor also falls short due to poor timing, wooden delivery and the inescapable fact that his brand of humor is more than a little shop-worn.
Another of the stories deals with an ordinary schlepper named Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) who is suddenly “discovered” by the paparazzi and propelled to brief and dizzying levels of unmerited celebrity. Leopoldo is a Woody Allen clone — nerdy and slightly built with unremarkable looks. He is justly puzzled and uncomfortable with his newfound recognition. Consistent with Woody Allen’s sexual imaginings, Leopoldo finds himself in bed with two stunningly beautiful Italian women. The message of this piece is obscure and somewhat arcane.
A third vignette brings John (Alec Baldwin,) a very successful American shopping mall architect, together with Jack (Jessie Eisenberg,) an aspiring American architectural student. Jack coincidentally is living on the same street on which John lived while learning his trade as a young, student architect. Eisenberg’s flat affect may have been a personality match for Mark Zuckerberg (“The Social Network” — 2010), but nonfunctional for his portrayal of Jack.
The vignette also features Ellen Page (“Juno” — 2007) playing Monica, an insincere femme-fatal sexual predator who steals Jack’s affection from his worthy girlfriend/lover.
Sorry folks, Paige is cute — she ain’t no sex object. If it weren’t for Baldwin’s Greek chorus role, this story would have been a complete washout. Baldwin is a really funny man — especially when he plays the lurking truth teller who is largely unseen and unheard by the other characters. Thank goodness for Alec Baldwin.
Finally we have the only eye candy offered in this otherwise unattractive film — Penelope Cruz. Cruz plays a red-clad hooker who is accidentally dispatched to provide pleasure to a young man who has moved to Rome with his young, beautiful bride. To be ready to meet the husband’s family in Rome, the young bride gets seriously lost while searching for a hair dresser. As soon as the young bride departs the hotel, Anna (Cruz) enters in a miniscule red dress and attempts to seduce her misidentified mark. The ensuing action is very funny — some of the best lines in this otherwise flat script. Penelope Cruz is worth the price of admission all by herself. Her portrayal of Anna the hooker is very sexy, sweet and entertaining.
I am sorry to conclude that Alec Baldwin and Penelope Cruz are the only really engaging parts of ”To Rome With Love.”
Bernard A. Karshmer is a professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. He is a past chair of the Denver Film Society and International Film Festival and currently chairs the Denver County Cultural Council.