In order for an “intertwining stories”-formatted ensemble film to succeed, it must offer engaging characters and/or a compelling overarching thesis to unite each segment. As if all his creative juices were expended on last year’s masterwork “Midnight in Paris,” which achieved both feats, writer/director Woody Allen accomplishes neither in “To Rome with Love,” a turgid, meandering misfire. If not for 2008’s “Whatever Works,” Allen’s infantile collaboration with Larry David, this would easily rank at the absolute bottom of the filmmaker’s extensive body of work.
While “Midnight in Paris” featured one protagonist interacting with each member of its large ensemble, “To Rome with Love” is more akin to Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” in structure, telling four completely disconnected stories. The first is about an American tourist (Alison Pill) who falls in love with a native (Flavio Parenti), culminating in a farcical meeting between their parents that somehow results in his father becoming an opera star. Another revolves around a middle-class clerk (Roberto Benigni) who, for no apparent reason, becomes a favorite subject of the paparazzi. A third story features a young architecture student (Jesse Eisenberg) who lusts for his girlfriend’s visiting friend (Ellen Page), while receiving life advice from an older version of himself (Alec Baldwin). And lastly, there is a segment about a recently married couple (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) from rural Italy who get separated from one another in the Eternal City, resulting in comedic hijinks with a prostitute and a famous actor.
The biggest problem with “To Rome with Love” is that there is no glue to hold the various stories together, no larger thesis that makes them thematically relevant to one another. All touch on the construct of fame, but it wouldn’t appear that Allen has any “big idea” to voice about said construct. (Thanks to the out-of-left-field conclusion of the Eisenberg/Page segment, not even the customary “being famous doesn’t make you happy” applies). Instead, the filmmaker merely offers an occasional musing about the West’s celebrity-obsessed culture in each vignette, as if that’s enough to connect the dots. The end result is a movie that feels like Allen’s personal excuse to spend time in Rome, not something that he made for artistic reasons.
Tonally, the film is a mess — it’s rarely clear when Allen is aiming for out-and-out comedy and when he is aiming for mildly clever drama. For instance, I spoke earlier of a character who becomes an opera star. The twist is that he can only sing well in the shower, so they integrate one into his stage show. His story’s climax finds him performing before an audience of hundreds, engaged in the drama of the opera (swords and all) as water flows down his naked body. One assumes that we’re supposed to be laughing riotously, but Allen’s lack of tonal authority makes one wonder if the sequence is actually a more subtle commentary on the absurdities of high art. Certainly, Allen’s forte is mixing comedy and drama together, but in “To Rome with Love,” the two genres are so indistinguishable that it’s impossible for either to be effective.
The casting is problematic, as well, especially in the Eisenberg/Page thread. One would think that Eisenberg, with his classic New York Jewishness and fast-talking sensibilities, would be the perfect Allen surrogate, but he tanks here. It would seem that Eisenberg’s trademark brand of neuroticism is more intense and less existential than Allen’s, making him ill-fitted for the role of a young wanderer. But no one is more out-of-place in the movie than Ellen Page, who couldn’t fit the bill for “alluring sexpot” any less if she tried. If anything, Page should have swapped roles with Greta Gerwig, who is similarly awkward as Eisenberg’s frumpy, boring girlfriend. It’s a testament to Allen’s narcissism that he would pick Page, the closest thing to an attractive female version of himself, to play the supposed most desirable woman in the film. To chide the actors themselves for accepting roles that didn’t fit them would be an excessive critique, however, because the fact that they now have to list this stinker on their resumes is punishment enough.