By Joan Ellis
To Rome, With Love is a wondrous romp for its first half-hour. Woody Allen introduces four mostly unconnected stories that unfold against the beauty of Rome in a jaunty amalgam of Italian and English as American tourists and native Italians meet and interact. After a while though, it feels as if we are watching a pinball machine of his latest imaginings – not much coherence, too much jumping from here to there. The movie slides into tired, familiar territory with each joke expanded unto boredom.
Hayley (Alison Pill) will marry Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). When her parents – Phyllis (Judy Davis) and Jerry (guess who) – arrive from New York to meet the groom, we are treated to the first hints of trouble. Dad the grump arrives laden with complaints about airplane turbulence and unions as Michelangelo’s parents wince at their new in-law. The scene becomes repetitious until it just runs out of gas.
As a retired opera director, Jerry pounces on Michelangelo’s father (Fabio Armiliato) when he hears him singing in the shower. Bored with retirement and sensing a good thing, Jerry becomes relentless in his determination to sign the man up. The joke here is that the shy man can sing only in the shower, so you can imagine what happens when he makes his professional debut. It works once, if mildly, but the effect of multiple, on-stage shower appearances is finally deadly.
In a clever send-up of the celebrity culture that plagues our age, a pale nobody (Roberto Benigni) is mistaken for a somebody and becomes an instant hero. Sally (Greta Gerwig), Monica (Ellen Page), and Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) form an ill-fated trio with Alec Baldwin (invisible to all but Jack and the audience) as adviser to Jack on the pitfalls of romance.
In the weakest link of the stories, Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) and Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) are a honeymooning couple from the country. While Milly gets lost in Rome (in order to let the complications develop), Antonio is visited by Anna (Penelope Cruz), a hooker who mistakes him for a client she has been booked to service. Cruz’s calmly confident hooker lifts the movie whenever she’s on screen. She, Judy Davis, and Alec Baldwin act with the self-assured presence of proven actors while the younger actors seem intimidated by such illustrious company. Great line: in a passing reference to the Vatican, Cruz the hooker responds, “I know it well.”
Some time ago a documentary about Woody Allen introduced us to his actual parents who expressed their disapproval of his career, his stone-faced mother snapping, “When are you going to get a real job?” After a few minutes with them, we understood exactly what fuels the pessimism that is the engine of Woody Allen’s comic genius.
So he slipped a little here. Should you go? You can only love Rome, and who among us is ever going to skip a Woody Allen movie?
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.