Frothy as the foam on a cappuccino, Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love is a slight and lovely anthology following a quartet of magical realist stories set in the Eternal City. In one story Alec Baldwin walks the streets of Rome where he lived for a year as a young man and meets Jesse Eisenberg, who is about to make a similar romantic mistake that Baldwin made decades before. In another Roberto Begnini is a normal middle class man who wakes up one day to be suddenly, inexplicably famous. In the third Woody Allen is a retired opera director who discovers an astonishing new talent... who can only sing in the shower. And in the fourth Penelope Cruz is a hooker who has to pretend to be a provincial man’s new wife while his real bride is romanced by an unlikely movie star.
Each of these stories plays out like a half-baked idea Woody had laying around (I wouldn’t be surprised if a search through his stand-up and written work reveals the genesis of the ‘opera singer who is only good in the shower’ story as a short gag), but they’re fleshed out in human and sweet ways. And while none of them have the complexity and profundity of Woody’s best work, each has a relatable core.
The Baldwin/Eisenberg story is my favorite, even if it is rife with strange miscasting. Baldwin is dryly great as a mature architect who has sold out for money, looking back at his past, but Eisenberg isn’t playing the character you’d expect. He’s not really the Woody role in the story, but more the young Baldwin - an odd juxtaposition. Not as odd as the fact that Woody cast Ellen Page in the role of a highly sexualized seductress wooing Eisenberg away from Greta Gerwig, though; that bit of casting deserves its own entry in the Time Life Unexplained Mysteries series.
Begnini is wonderful as well, reigning in the madness that made him so unbearable in the 90s. Cruz is having a lot of fun playing a character who is essentially in a sketch (the punchline of which has the hooker at a gathering of very important Italian men - you can imagine where that goes). Woody, unfortunately, is in decline as an actor, unable to deliver his trademark Woodyisms with the proper timing, leaving some gaps of dead air in scenes (more than one scene of the movie feels like it was done in one take; I wonder if Woody is getting more Clint Eastwood in his old old age).
Like Midnight in Paris (which is vastly superior to this lovely trifle), the city is a main character in To Rome With Love. Rome is gorgeous and shot with love by Darius Khondji; the film spends time on the small cobbled side streets as well as in the majestic ancient ruins, and every screening should offer a chance to buy Alitalia tickets to Rome. But Woody doesn’t seem to have the same affection for Rome that he had for Paris; in Midnight he was celebrating the city’s culture and people just as much as he was celebrating its beauty. To Rome With Love features many Italians but doesn’t seem as engaged with the unique culture.
Of course Woody loves Italian cinema, and the movie is packed with delightful appearances by Italian actors (Orna Mufti shows up on a red carpet, confirming Woody's deep love for Flash Gordon). In a lot of ways To Rome With Love feels like a movie that's been kicking around in his head since he saw Love Italian Style back in the 60s.
Am I grading Woody Allen on a curve? Maybe. The film is so light that even the next morning I had to look up a couple of plot details for this review. It’s so light it makes Midnight in Paris look like Crimes and Misdemeanors. But it’s undeniably pleasant and comfortable, and God knows it’s miles better than Anything Else of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. At this point I’ll take fluffy and forgettable Woody over Hollywood Ending Woody.