The Italian job, by Woody Allen
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 29, 2012
The comic roundelay that is “To Rome With Love” opens with narration by an anonymous Roman traffic cop (Pierluigi Marchionne) talking directly to the camera as cars whiz by. That’s the intro for filmmaker Woody Allen’s Rome-set story, a bumper-to-bumper backup of multiple, interconnected tales about love, lust and the swirl of humanity. The police officer has a few quick lines, and then he disappears until the end, when he pops up again to usher in the closing credits.
“To Rome With Love” could use more of him. It’s a traffic jam of epic proportions.
And it isn’t just the story, which involves four main threads and numerous sub-threads. The movie also is crowded with characters standing in for Allen, a director who’s famous for casting surrogates -- actors who impersonate the director’s famous neurotic-intellectual tics (see Owen Wilson in “Midnight in Paris,” Kenneth Branagh in “Celebrity,” among others).
The battling Wood-bots include Jesse Eisenberg’s stammering, romantically confused American architecture student; Roberto Benigni’s Italian schlemiel who wakes up one morning to discover that he’s famous for absolutely no reason; and Alessandro Tiberi as a nervous young newlywed from the Italian boondocks who wears oversize shirts buttoned up to the neck, yet who nevertheless winds up fighting off a preposterously gorgeous Roman prostitute (Penelope Cruz) in a case of mistaken identity.
Allen himself makes his first on-camera appearance since 2006’s “Scoop,” playing a former opera director who discovers an undertaker (Fabio Armiliato) with an astounding voice that manifests itself only when he’s in the shower. Of course, this leads to an extended sequence of a naked, soaped-up man in a portable shower stall, performing “Pagliacci” in front of perplexed classical-music fans.
It’s the low point of the film.
Somewhere in here is a real movie, but it’s hard to find in all the mess (which, despite everything, is actually funny from time to time). The best of the many subplots involves Eisenberg’s Jack, a nebbish torn between his live-in girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig), and her visiting best friend, Monica (Ellen Page). Never mind that Page -- who looks like a 13-year-old boy -- is woefully miscast as a sexpot Hollywood actress. The story works for one reason, and one reason only: Alec Baldwin as John, a middle-age architect who once lived in the same Roman apartment that Jack and Sally now occupy.
As John, Baldwin keeps showing up, incongruously, in scenes involving Jack, Sally and Monica. Only Jack and Monica seem to be able to see him, as he offers unsolicited -- and generally disregarded -- romantic advice with the aplomb of an invisible Jack Donaghy. Baldwin also delivers some of the best lines. Otherwise, “Rome” is a little too peppered with one-liners for its own good.
“Is someone dead?” the undertaker asks Allen’s Jerry, when they meet. “No,” Jerry answers, “but it’s early.”
Unfortunately, this promising story line -- which suggests a comic take on how the young must make their own mistakes -- is anemic and underdeveloped. How could it not be? There’s no room for it to grow, with precious screen time eaten up by all the other labored, arch dialogue spoken -- ever so haltingly -- by the movie’s various Woody wannabes.
Then there’s the Roberto Benigni narrative, whose entire point seems to be that fame is better than anonymity. It’s difficult to imagine that Allen believes that, even for a second. What he does seem to believe in is keeping busy, even if it means spinning his wheels.
Coming so soon after the director’s delightful excursion to “Paris” last year, “To Rome With Love” is a giant disappointment. It’s as bustling as its titular city’s piazzas, but it goes nowhere.