To Rome with Love is a bad movie, and yet it employs exceptional talent and showcases many of writer/director Woody Allen’s best loved cinematic hallmarks. It’s constructed as four vignettes that are not only bound by nothing apart from the location but also go nowhere meaningful in and of themselves. Lacking a real plot to string them together, the best one can say is that it’s essentially a series of concepts that weren’t allowed to come to fruition. Allen is a gifted filmmaker, but I sometimes wonder if he has someone, anyone, in his life to tell him that screenplays need to be honed and polished before they can be shot and edited into something watchable. If such a person exists, he or she must have been taking a day off. And how tragic that this had to be the follow up to Midnight in Paris.
Taking place in Rome, the film opens with an Italian traffic cop turning to the camera and announcing that he sees all manner of life on the streets, and that everyone has a story. At a café table sits John (Alec Baldwin), a formerly respected American architect who has since sold out and now designs shopping malls. We learn that he used to live in Rome as a young man, and so, feeling nostalgic, he decides to walk the cobblestone streets to his old apartment building. He’s then approached by Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who admires John’s work. As it so happens, Jack is studying architecture, and it appears that he now lives in the same building John once lived in. Jack invites John up and introduces him to his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig), who’s preparing for the arrival of her best friend, an actress named Monica (Ellen Page).
Monica’s arrival marks not only the start of an emotional affair between her and Jack but also a bizarre shift in structure and tone. Although it has been established that John is a real person, he suddenly and quite inexplicably becomes more like Jack’s invisible conscience, disappearing into the periphery before popping up at random and saying things that, for the most part, only Jack can hear. He repeatedly tries to warn Jack to stay away from Monica, who appears to show a healthy interest in art and literature but may in fact be nothing more than a desperate pseudo-intellectual. On the basis of the way this story concludes, Allen seemed to be suggesting that John is in actual fact Jack’s future self. This is narratively impossible, given the fact that Jack actually recognized John for his body of work.
In another story, we meet an American girl named Hayley (Alison Pill) and her Italian boyfriend Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). They’re eventually joined by Hayley’s parents, Phyllis and Jerry (Judy Davis and Woody Allen), the latter a retired music producer/avant-garde opera stager. Jerry meets Michelangelo’s father, a mortician named Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), and is shocked to discover that the man has a beautiful tenor voice. Initially against the idea of singing professionally, Giancarlo is finally browbeaten by Jerry into auditioning. It doesn’t go well. Jerry eventually figures out why: Giancarlo is at his best when taking a shower. This discovery paves the way for a sight gag that isn’t as funny as Allen thinks it is. In fact, it’s his worst sight gag since the monster breast in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex.
Two of the vignettes are spoken entirely in Italian. In one, Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi and Allesandra Mastronardi) are newlyweds who travel to Rome after Antonio accepted a job. Milly leaves the hotel and gets lost trying to find a hair salon; as she wanders aimlessly, getting convoluted directions from the locals, she eventually catches the eye of her favorite actor, Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese), who immediately starts to seduce her. Meanwhile, back at the hotel, a prostitute named Anna (Penelope Cruz) mistakes Antonio for a new client; Antonio’s family discovers them both in bed, which means that Antonio must frantically try to convince everyone that Anna is his wife. This will inevitably lead to lengthy discussion regarding Antonio’s romantic deficits.
In the other vignette, an ordinary, unknown, middle class office worker named Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) will have his life turned upside down when legions of press and paparazzi quite mysteriously begin treating him like a celebrity. Everything, from what he eats for breakfast to what razor he uses to shave to whether or not he believes in God, are mercilessly scrutinized by reporters with microphones and cameras. Allen is obviously making an absurdist point about the ups and downs of fame, quite possibly as a way to cope with his own feelings on the subject. Its structure doesn’t flow as well as it should, and its ultimate message is hopelessly predictable, but it’s still the strongest of the story segments in To Rome with Love. Had Allen disregarded the other three, maybe it would have been a much better movie.