There’s no such thing as a bad Woody Allen film, let’s get that out of the way. The only problem is that after making masterpieces like Annie Hall and Sweet and Lowdown every film he releases is inevitably compared to the classics. That being said, his latest effort lacks the intellectual punch of his previous films and is perhaps his most experimental.
To Rome with Love is an ensemble comedy that tells the story of life in Rome. Following the lives of about 10 different characters, the movie attempts to give a fantastical snapshot of Italian life. That is where things run off the rails.
Allen is no stranger to playing with the laws of space and time. Even in the early 70’s he was writing sophisticated comedies with a science fiction twist. But with Rome the manipulation is much more subtle and doesn’t play by any established rules. While the audience gets to follow each of the stories, they all seem to run on their own individual timelines. While days have passed in one story, only a few minutes seems to have passed in another. With no clear separation between the stories, the audience gets thrown in many directions at once. It is very avant-garde and it is clear Allen likes the freedom to switch between stories at will.
Despite the chaotic nature of the film, there are moments of pure genius. The Alec Baldwin/Jesse Eisenberg storyline is beautifully done and feels like a return to form for Allen. Baldwin’s ability to break through the fourth wall of the movie takes what might have been just another romantic relationship story and truly dissects it.
Other storylines don’t fare as well. Robert Bengini’s odd story arc about a middle-class Roman clerk who becomes famous overnight for absolutely no reason is interesting to watch but seems to go on for far too long. Still, it is great to see Bengini on screen again in front of a mainstream audience. His everyman quality and natural charisma allows what might have been an otherwise one-note idea to flourish.
The movie also marks the return of Allen as an onscreen character. As he’s gotten older, he has allowed more youthful personas like Owen Wilson and Larry David to take the roles that would have been dominated by Allen a few decades before. In Rome, Allen plays a minor role as Alison Pill’s American father visiting the city to meet her fiancé and his parents. In typical Allen fashion though, that simple premise somehow takes a turn for the weird. Let’s just say it involves the opera, clowns and a shower. It is by far one of the strangest story arcs of the movie.
After the wild success of Midnight in Paris, another film with almost the same premise but a far more coherent storyline, something like To Rome with Love does seem to make sense. The idea of an international comedy with a stellar cast helmed by Woody Allen should be an amazing film. But his experiment lacks cohesion, some kind of glue to hold it all together. In Midnight in Paris there were multiple timelines going on at once but one single story holding them all together. In Rome there is nothing holding any of it together. The couples never even cross paths, something that seems inevitable given the location and the size of the cast.
At its core, To Rome with Love is not a bad film. It is just an experiment in structure. Allen, like many legendary filmmakers, could perhaps be coming to terms with his own mortality. While his character in the film tackles with a life of retirement, Bengini’s is wrestling with the perils of stardom and what it means to truly be happy. Baldwin, meanwhile, must come to terms with long-lost love before moving on with his life. All of these threads speak volumes about where Allen’s head is at right now. The film seems like his way of working through those fundamental problems, like an on-screen therapist.
It’s hard to say whether or not audiences will take to the movie. Allen will always have his diehard fans but whether or not it will gain mainstream acceptance is questionable. Like all Allen films, To Rome with Love is something that needs to be watched again and again. There is so much going on at any given moment; it is easy to miss out on the tiny details.