I guess Woody Allen was slightly insulted in 2006 when he wasn't asked to direct one of the shorts in the compilation tribute to the city of lights titled Paris, je t'aime. There were plenty of high-class directors that contributed to the project and it happened right on the cusp of Mr. Allen's tour of Europe. In not getting to attribute a short film to the collection he seems to have decided to create a film of shorts himself. In his follow up to last years wildly successful Midnight in Paris Allen has returned to his usual state of conveying his opinion through typical, if not farcical situations. Whereas last year and every once in a while throughout his consistent career Allen will diverge from his beaten path and deliver a fantastic story that mixes the writer/director's combination of wit and criticism with a story that on a different level than most, connects to its audience. In the ethics of seeming to work non stop Allen fills the gaps between these sparks of genius with meditations on the current state of society and popular culture among other things. Allen has always been known for his insecure yet intellectual persona and he applies that not only in the character he himself portrays here but into each of the four stories that is told in To Rome with Love. While overall the film does in fact appear to be several short films spliced together to perpetrate as a feature it is actually a nicely paced piece of fun to watch that is moved along by the diverse bits of casting Allen has put together here. I can understand where many critics are coming from when they find this to be "lesser Woody Allen" but I found it to be quite wonderful, a nice distraction in the summer months, if only slightly disappointing after such a higher level of imagination he delivered to us last year.

From Left: Phyllis (Judy Davis) Jerry (Woody Allen) Hayley
(Alison Pill) and her fiance Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti)
enjoy a night of Opera from Michelangelo's father.
To Rome with Love tells four different accounts of people living in or visiting the beautiful city of fountains as each experiences an affinity for the city and for another newly acquired aspect of their lives. Whether it be a close encounter with new found celebrity in an attempt to illustrate the current state of the rich and famous who relish in the life for the reasons of being rich and famous or to examine and re-live the never changing landscape with which free-spirited, college-aged kids approach such a complex emotion as love. There is the situation in which Allen places himself as a father and husband to wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) as they have just arrived in Rome to meet their future son-in-law and his family. Allen has gathered Paris alum Alison Pill to play his daughter and in meeting her fiance Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) and his father sees the opportunity to relive his glory days and come back out of retirement as an opera director as he finds a hidden talent in Michelangelo's father. Then there is the least explored story that concerns a young, rather square couple who venture off on separate romantic encounters that are meant to teach them a thing or two about their own. Penelope Cruz shows up for a bit part that is really a bit of fun, but while her excerpt might be the least explored it is the storyline that involves Roberto Benigni as a middle class, run of the mill man who gains instant stardom for seemingly no reason that falls the most flat due to lack of support. There is not much in the way of story here, but more an examination of the effects of celebrity and how fast fads come and go. Allen approaches each scenario as if it were a stand up comedy routine and blesses each with snappy dialogue that is delivered perfectly by his understanding cast.

John (Alec Baldwin) and Jack (Jesse Eisenberg)
reminisce together on love and deception.
The positive light the film does shine is that it knows how to balance its non-intersecting stories well. Allen knows where the most intrigue lies and doesn't want to waste the time exploring each of these equally. He justifiably wants to present a full picture and though many will likely attest to the fact that it seems to be trying too hard and ends up being mostly forgettable. I won't argue with that, I will likely never set my eyes on To Rome with Love again and I don't really have an issue with that. It was a nice, fanciful peace of writing with amusing characters and situations, but nothing that I will feel the need to re-visit. That is not to say it isn't worth seeing once though. And if there is one particular reason to venture out of your way to see the film it would be the plot line involving an architect named John (Alec Baldwin) who is in Rome with friends, but essentially stumbles on a bit of nostalgia in attempting to re-live his youth. The set-up is made to where he meets a young man in a similar situation as he in his early twenty's. At first the relationship is accepted as something completely based in reality, but here is also where Allen's charm as an inventive comedic writer comes in. It soon becomes apparent that Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) is the actual younger version of John. John travels through his summer in Rome with Jack as a guide for re-living the foolishness with which he seems to have let what could have potentially been something real go for a fling with a wispy wannabe actress that impressed him with her abbreviated knowledge of all things he loved. As the steady girlfriend Greta Gerwig is underused and as her confident, supposedly sexually enticing friend Ellen Page is miscast. Page is usually a quirky charmer and I expected her persona to fit in well with Allen's style, but the roles should have been reversed here with the Gerwig role being more fleshed out. Allen let the bigger name take the bigger role instead of having the better actress for the part have a shot at it.

Anna (Penelope Cruz) becomes an unnecessary
distraction for a young married man in
To Rome with Love
Still, for all of its seeming missteps To Rome with Love succeeds in being an entertaining and sweet way to spend two hours. The film moves along at a brisk pace cutting inbetween the four stories and never lets us feel like we'd rather be watching more of another's than the one we are watching in the moment. Allen focuses on his own and Baldwin's progressions with growing older, reflecting on where they've been and what they've done while side noting the Benigni and Cruz plots for easy laughs and his own thoughts and opinions on celebrities and how they act, but more interestingly how they are regarded by everyone else in today's society. Though the point is driven home with some funny results you won't help but feel like it might have all been a bit unnecessary as neither of the scenarios bring us any real character arc or story. We can argue the two lovers come to realize what their soulless marriage has been missing and that Benigni's character comes to realize what is really important in his life. These are stereotypical lessons at the very least though and not usually trappings Woody Allen will let himself fall into. This off balance kilter between his two themes takes away from the overall impression the film leaves, but hey, Mr. Allen is getting close to 80 and is likely not going to be making many more films, if the guy wants to say something or make a point in a film he has certainly earned the right to do so. I'm not gonna get overly upset if we get a side note about about something the director finds to be interesting, especially if its as pleasantly funny as what he has written for us here.


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