There are three million stories in the Eternal City; Woody Allen tells four of them. For his follow-up to the enjoyable but overpraised Midnight in Paris, Allen goes To Rome with Love and promptly loses his way. Allen long ago made his reputation as a filmmaker—especially as a comic one—and no one can take that away from him, not even Woody himself. But that doesn’t stop him from trying. His new film was originally titled “The Bop Decameron,” suggesting a jazzy variation on Boccaccio’s medieval collection of satirical fables and love stories. As a title, To Rome with Love wisely sets the bar lower, and die-hard Allen fans who won’t be deterred from going would do well to limbo under those expectations.
The most pleasurable aspect of To Rome with Love—apart from the golden-hued location photography of Darius Khondji—is the onscreen appearance of Allen, who hasn’t performed for the camera since his 2006 film Scoop. Allen plays a retired opera director named Jerry, who accompanies his wife (Judy Davis) to Rome to meet the fiancé (Flavio Parenti) of their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill). Jerry overhears the young man’s father (Fabio Armiliato) singing opera in the shower, and determines to make a (reluctant) star out of him.
Meanwhile, American architect John (Alec Baldwin) wanders his old haunts from a bygone youth spent in Rome; there he finds an aspiring American architect (Jesse Eisenberg) who reminds John of himself, prompting the older man to try to keep the younger one from making the same romantic mistakes with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and a sexy new acquaintance (Ellen Page).
Elsewhere, middle-class cubicle dweller Leopoldo Pisanello (Roberto Benigni) finds himself magically anointed a celebrity who’s “famous for being famous”: hounded by the paparazzi, granted the best tables in restaurants, and attracting the most beautiful women (never mind his wife). Also bopping around are a just-married couple (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) who farcically wind up in the arms of other people: he with a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) and she with a movie star (Antonio Albanese).
None of the storylines is without its problems. The tales tend to be predictable, obvious, and, in terms of humor and thematic import, weak tea. Benigni does a fine job, but he’s saddled with a two-joke premise (fame comes, fame goes) that becomes tired almost immediately; Baldwin and Eisenberg are fatally mismatched; and so on.
More distressing are Allen’s regressive treatment of women (as wet blankets; eager adulteresses; manipulative, emotionally ruinous temptresses; or in one hoary Italian stereotype, a knife-wielding hothead) and an off-putting solipsism. Repeatedly, sexy women confess their attraction to Woody-esque men with power, celebrity, neuroses, and a tendency for “reminiscing” about the past; one woman tells Leopoldo, “The rules don’t apply to you. You’re special.” It may be satire, but the whole point of the fame story is for Allen to kvetch that the only thing worse than being famous is not being famous: gee, thanks, we’ll remember that.
Allen’s privileged-male, American-in-Rome condescension takes most of the fun out of To Rome with Love. It’s easier to flinch than laugh when Page’s character tells Baldwin’s, “You will never understand women,” and he replies, “That’s been proven.”
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]