This film tragically creates more ruins in 112 minutes than Rome accomplished in its three thousand year history. Woody Allen wants to depict the charm of The Eternal City, where anything goes, while ambitiously paying tribute to the great Italian film directors, especially Fellini. His camera captures La Bella Roma in all its beauty, but his mix of realism and surrealism doesn’t gel. Instead of vicariously experiencing its magic, we get alienation without enough punch lines. And I love Rome.
As opposed to his successful “city movies”, Manhattan and Midnight in Paris, Mr. Allen relies on a episodic structure. Robert Altman succeeded with this characteristic format in films like Nashville, The Player, and Gosford Park, because his scripts were better thought out. So how could Mr. Allen go so wrong?
Sure, we all agree, who wouldn’t want to work with Woody Allen? And boy does he cast his film with actors you want to see. But the documentary accompanying the Blu-Ray disc confirms that he didn’t give the ensemble the ragtag script until 1 week before shooting. Then each actor was encouraged in Allen’s typical fashion to find his or her character and improvise.
A comedy works not just because of a coherent, if zany, script and snappy lines, but by timing and pacing. Tragically, the actors get sacked in this one before they start. The dialogue keeps meandering with inessentials, so it can’t advance the action. Then the director doesn’t push his cast to pick up the pacing and sharpen their timing. As a result, most of the cast don’t seem to know what they’re doing.The most painful example are the interchanges between the parents, played by Allen and Judy Davis.
There’s one final essential element missing from this movie. Remember, we’re speaking of Rome, a city of passion eternally present with always more hidden, waiting to be discovered. Apart from Penelope Cruz and Roberto Bengnini, this passion never surfaces, remaining buried in some catacomb. For example the Alec Baldwin character behaves way too composed and cold in his trying to help his younger self clearly see he’s foolishly in love with a sexy, but self-centered woman. Ellen Page, in turn, has the energy, but can’t generate it into any sexual fireworks, the way Ms. Cruz does with one look. But what do you expect when Ms. Page plays against an overcerebral and too emotionally contained actor like Jesse Eisenberg?
Finally, Allen sadly fails at his framing the film with an opening and closing narrative by a traffic policeman, whose purpose is to convince the viewer that he is the conduit for all that passes in this marvelous city. He invites you to come along with him. The problem is, after five minutes this poliziotto abandons you at the intersection and doesn’t show up until the end, when he reappears at a balcony overlooking the Spanish Steps. He tries wrapping the movie up with some enchanted nonsense plus an arrivederci or whatever, but it’s a contrived dramatic flourish that makes the filmmaker look desperate. The film can’t be rescued. It’s already figuratively tumbled into the Tiber River.
But if you love the movies and Woody Allen and want to compare how To Rome with Love falls and Midnight in Paris rises, then spend your two hours witnessing this sad flop, as it floats down the river.