By Richard Schickel
What’s this? A messy movie from Woody Allen? Whether of good, bad or indifferent quality, his films are typically trim, neat, efficient and relatively brief—all things that are not particularly true of “To Rome With Love,” which is shaggy, baggy, meandering and multifaceted.
Basically, a bunch of Americans and Romans are gathered in the Italian capital where they endure a series of mild adventures, some of which are kinda funny, some of which are not so much. Allen himself plays a retired (and apparently not very good) opera director who discovers a mortician with a glorious tenor voice who can sing only for himself. This means that when he sings in public, he must always appear in a shower stall. That’s pretty funny, if not absurdist or downright surreal. When the mood is upon him, Allen is still a master of comic invention.
That mood is only intermittently present here. Still, any movie with Penelope Cruz—here divinely and spectacularly present—playing a hooker mistaken for the wife of a provincial who is both on his honeymoon and job hunting in Rome, is not to be lightly dismissed. This is indeed a beautifully cast movie: Alec Baldwin is an architect intruding upon and sardonically commenting on two relationships with a kind of choral effect: one involving a nice, innocent girl (Greta Gerwig), and another (Ellen Page), effectively off-cast as a raging neurotic determined to rescue a fading acting career and to destroy any hope of civility in Gerwig’s romantic life. There’s a viciousness in Page’s character that gives the film an unwonted sting. There’s nothing like a sweet-faced young woman who’s a monster of ego to rattle your teacups.
Roberto Benigni is present too as another kind of monster—of ordinariness. Somehow he briefly becomes a local celebrity precisely because he is a nobody, and somewhat to his surprise finds that he likes this new status. This is a theme that Allen has toyed with before and he’s quite good with it. In the past he has observed, uniquely, that fame is actually more rewarding than the famous like to pretend that it is. Or, as he once remarked, at least you can get a doctor on a Sunday.
Certainly there are pleasures to be found in “To Rome With Love.” The trouble is that there are not enough of them, and some of them are somewhat stale. Enough, finally, of hooker jokes, and on the other hand, imperiled innocence and three door farce sequences, all of which Allen has already explored to better effect.
That’s not to say that I’ve lost my faith in Allen. He makes his films now in Europe and that, on the whole, is to his advantage. If nothing else they have a spaciousness, even sometimes an exotic quality that works for them. They are handsome and diverting to look at, and sometimes, as in “Match Point,” they are a good deal more than that—dark and a little bit dangerous too. I think, however, that he is a prisoner of his fecundity. It is not absolutely necessary that he make a picture every year, and it is certainly not necessary that all of them be masterpieces. There are not too many funny and thoughtful guys around these days and those who are need to be treasured, to be guarded against their own prolixity. There is no reason not to see something like “To Rome With Love.” It’s an amiable film in its way. But it’s also something like a bag full of querulous cats, brimming with comic ideas that only occasionally come together in sustained, well-developed riffs. That’s OK, I guess. We tend to put a lot of pressure on Woody. We need him perhaps more than we like to admit. But you know kid, take it easy. Take a year off. It’ll do you good. Us too, I think.