June 24, 2012


TO ROME WITH LOVE:  Worth A Ticket – Woody Allen Takes A Roman Holiday


At the age of 76, with 44 films and a moving van’s worth of awards to his credit, Woody Allen doesn’t worry too much about topping himself.  His assembly line readies next year’s movie for production before the current year’s is even released, and whether the picture it’s following is wonderful (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), very good (Midnight In Paris), mediocre (You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger), or awful (Whatever Works), he knows another will be along soon enough.  As it happens, TO ROME WITH LOVE is taking over from Midnight, the biggest hit (not adjusted for inflation) of Allen’s career, and it falls somewhere in the middle, a pleasant enough entertainment unlikely to have an enormous amount of staying power.

Rome continues Allen’s European tour that’s previously covered London, Barcelona and Paris for most of this decade (as he’s frankly noted, a large reason for his travels is that, at least pre-Midnight In Paris, it was becoming difficult for him to get American financing for his films).  To continue the European theme, Rome is what’s sometimes called a portmanteau film, a collection of 4 (or 5, depending on how you’re counting) short stories that in the 1960s would each have been handled by a separate director (as in Spirits of the Dead, an anthology with mini-films by Fellini, Roger Vadim and Louis Malle).  Although the stories are intercut, they don’t interconnect except in vague thematic ways, and don’t even take place over the same time period–all the events of one transpire in a single day, while others seem to spread over days or weeks.  Nevertheless, Allen and his editor Alisa Lepselter deftly make certain that there’s never any confusion about where or when we are.

To the extent there’s a single theme running through most of the tales, it’s celebrity:  its pursuit and effect.  That’s a subject Allen’s looked at before, although the tone in Rome is far gentler and less judgmental than in Stardust Memories or Celebrity.  In one story, a completely ordinary Roman (Roberto Benigni), for no apparent reason, is suddenly the subject of 24-hour-a-day media scrutiny, including tireless examinations of his shaving and breakfast habits.  In another, a retired music promoter and opera director (Allen), in town with his wife (Judy Davis) to visit their daughter (Alison Pill) and her boyfriend (Flavio Parenti), discovers that the boy’s father (Fabio Armiliato) can sing like a god–but only in the shower.  A third concerns a newly married couple from the hinterlands (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) in Rome for their honeymoon who are accidentally parted and go their separate ways toward temptation:  he with a mistakenly procured prostitute (Penelope Cruz) and she, in a riff on Fellini’s The White Sheik, with a famous movie actor (Antonio Albanese).  The final story features Jesse Eisenberg (this movie’s seemingly inevitable stand-in for the young Allen) as a fledgling, idealistic architect with a lovely, uncomplicated girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) who finds himself mightily tempted, as all Allen heroes are, by her neurotic, promiscuous, intellectual poseur best friend (Ellen Page), while an older architect (Alec Baldwin)–or the ghost of one, or the guardian spirit of one–watches and offers arch advice.

The protagonists mostly transgress, often because of their attraction to celebrity or other temporary, superficial attractions, learn their lessons, and somewhat shamefacedly go back to their normal lives, with little lasting damage.  The fables are very mild, with even less emotional impact than the time-travel lark of Midnight In Paris; the subtitle of this one could have been “What Happens In Rome, Stays In Rome.”  There’s nothing memorable here, not even in the performances, but Rome feels effortlessly craftsmanlike and has some very pleasant laughs, notably in the newlyweds chapter and when Allen himself (and in his by-play with frequent co-star Davis) demonstrates that there’s still no one better at pulling laughs out of a grimace or an inflection than the old pro, in the story that also has the best sight gags.  Benigni, whom no one’s particularly wanted to see since his unspeakable Oscar win, keeps his performance restrained and unforced, to good effect.    The most tiresome of the stories is the Eisenberg/Gerwig/Page triangle, because it seems traced out of the Allen playbook, although Baldwin does have some good lines as an observer who’s as familiar with this plotline as we are.

As usual in Allen’s films, the comforts of quality filmmaking are easy to take for granted.  Darius Khondji’s photography provides a lovely glow for the proceedings, the characters in Anne Seibel’s production design get to live as well as his New Yorkers always have, and a hit parade of familiar Italian music dots the soundtrack.

10 yeas ago, after the succession of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending and Anything Else, conventional wisdom was that Woody Allen had worn out his gift and was just the parched remnant of a great filmmaker.  But in the past decade, he’s given us Match PointVicky Cristina Barcelona, and Midnight In Paris, as well as the little-seen and underrated Cassandra’s Dream, and he’s proved that false.  He may never have a streak like the phenomenal one of his 1970s and 80s–the good films will be interspersed with less good–but even his medium projects like To Rome With Love are worth seeing.  And if you don’t spark to this one, well, 2013’s Untitled Woody Allen Project features Cate Blanchett, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Emerson, Bobby Cannavale, Sally Hawkins, and–most excitingly–Louis C.K., perhaps the current comedy auteur most comparable, in his very different way, to Allen himself.  And after that, if good health allows, there’ll be another.  And another…

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."