Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 14, 2013)
Back in 2011, Midnight in Paris became a surprise hit for Woody Allen. Indeed, if we don’t adjust for inflation, it stands as his biggest box office success. Sure, The Avengers earned more in its first day than Paris did in its entire run, but for Allen, a total $56 million take was spectacular.
Alas for the Woodman, 2012’s To Rome With Love failed to capitalize on the success of Paris. It brought in a mere $16 million in the US; that figure is typical for Allen but still seems like a letdown after Paris.
None of this dissuaded me from giving Rome a look, though. Set in Italy – duh! – the film comes with a large group of characters. Because I find it to be a massive chore to write my own plot synopses for ensemble films, I’ll take this one from the press release:
“To Rome With Love is told in four independent vignettes about four characters whose adventures change their lives forever: an average Roman (Roberto Benigni) wakes up one day to find himself a well-known celebrity; an American architect (Alec Baldwin) revisits the streets on which he used to live as a student; a young couple (Alessandro Tiberri and Alessandra Mastronardi) on their honeymoon are pulled into separate romantic encounters; and an American opera director (Allen) tries to turn a singing mortician (Fabio Armiliato) into a star.”
Since Allen did so well with the fantasy of Paris, he goes back to the well here, though not in such an obvious way. While Rome lacks realism, it doesn’t present the obvious fantasy of someone who travels back in time ala Paris.
Actually, it does in a way, as the Baldwin story offers a quirky form of time-travel; it just doesn’t make it clear. John (Baldwin) meets Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a character who we eventually realize is just the younger John, but the movie leaves this as a fairly subtle choice.
The other stories come with a fantasy feel, though none more so than the one with Benigni’s Leopoldo. I understand that Allen wants to offer commentary on contemporary celebrity culture, but it stretches reality to do so when Leopoldo literally becomes famous a) overnight, and b) for no reason. As for the remaining two, they’re comedic and not especially believable, but they do feel like they theoretically could happen in the real world – especially with the newlyweds who stray.
I have no problem with Allen’s decision to offer comedic fantasy in Rome - it’s his homage to Italian cinema and not a bad idea. Unfortunately, Allen’s execution flops.
It doesn’t help that virtually half of the movie comes in Italian with English subtitles. Allen’s a verbal comedian, so his work loses punch when we can’t focus on the delivery and we have to read the lines. I’m sure the Italian actors do fine in their roles, but there’s a reason verbal comedy doesn’t cross borders well; that kind of material just loses a lot of its impact when read and not heard. (The fact Allen doesn’t speak any Italian and had to have the dialogue translated by someone else causes another issue.)
Ignoring these concerns, the biggest problem with Rome is that it offers an anthology in which none of its multiple stories succeeds. Four tales and lots of characters but not a single personality/narrative thread that I’d call especially interesting. Sure, some are more intriguing than others, but none of them do much to amuse/entertain. They all lack substance and fall flat on the screen.
Honestly, Rome could’ve been half its length and worked as well – if not better. It comes with underwritten ideas and extends them beyond the point of logic. Taking incomplete concepts and making them longer doesn’t improve them or turn them into something deep; it just stretches them even thinner.
As a hooker in the wrong place, Penelope Cruz provides the sole highlight here. Not only does she look great, but also she adds real spark and pizzazz to the proceedings. Cruz can’t really elevate the material, but at least she adds life for a little while.
Otherwise, Rome delivers a mediocre affair. It takes a fine cast but can’t do much with them, as they’re stuck with one-dimensional characters and forgettable narratives. It’s nice that Allen got to indulge his inner Fellini, but the results don’t work.
By the way, am I the only one who wonders if Allen stole the “singer who can only croon in the shower” concept from an episode of The Flintstones? The two seem awfully similar.