Woody Allen’s “To Rome, With Love”


Having seen every one of Woody Allen’s nearly four dozen feature films, I now consider it my duty to see each new one, just to keep on top of it. The trouble is, he turns them out so fast, I never make it to the theatre in time, so I’ve ended up catching the last few when they come out on DVD.

I’ve always admired him, although he’s the farthest thing from perfect, and once in a blue moon, downright dreadful. My usual take on him is that he makes too many movies, leaving ingenious ideas insufficiently exploited and explored and a finished technical product that can be workmanlike rather than beautiful or even interesting. In this recent post I wrote that since 2005 or so he’d been bucking that trend. Most of the films since Matchpoint have been pretty terrific. But lately he seems to be slipping somewhat again. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger was not just boring, but  execrable. He rebounded substantially with Midnight in Paris (see my review here). To Rome with Love is not awful by any stretch of the imagination, but it is, as C said last night, undercooked. He needed to keep the ziti in the oven a little longer.

The thing is, I know how to fix it! The key lies in the original title Bop Decameron. (The craven string-pullers who run Hollywood decided that audiences are too slow  to understand that title. Uh, not Woody Allen’s audiences. Isn’t that who they would be marketing to? And I know it’s an idealistic pie in the sky dream of mine, but would it be such a bad idea to teach the rest of the retarded people a new word?) At any rate, he changed the name to Nero Fiddled which really is horrible, and then finally To Rome, With Love which isn’t too bad — it evokes the films from the sixties he spends a good deal of time echoing here. But it doesn’t elucidate the film or shed light on the structure the way the original title did. In fact, I swear to God, I walked away from watching that film last night saying, “He should have made it more like The Decameron” until I remembered the original title this morning (with a little help from Wikipedia).

But we’ll get back to that.

It’s probably not correct to call someone who works so hard and is so productive “lazy”, but that’s the word that frequently springs to mind when I watch his films. His choices are sometimes unimaginative, cliched, seemingly the product of an exhausted mind. For example, he pissed me off when the music over the opening credits of To Rome turned out to be “Volare”. Haven’t we heard that in like DOZENS of movies as kitchey shorthand for “Here we are among Italians”? Doesn’t he know that? Doesn’t he watch other movies? (He’s answered that question in interviews; no, he doesn’t really). Can’t he have thought a little harder and chosen a better song? And on and on like that.

To Rome with Love is chock full of on-the-nose- expository dialogue of the sort I associate with Neil Simon, where characters tell their friends, family members and co-workers things like what they do for a living, and where they just were in the moments before this scene took place. Strangers meet on the street and strike up conversations and then spend several hours or days together. Has this EVER happened to you? It happens to EVERYBODY in his movies. It’s just lazy screenwriting.

And he’s treading over lots of his own ground here.  Nearly every single character (except the Italians, who speak in Italian) are people we feel like we have seen again and again and again in Woody Allen films, which can inspire the Allenesque phrase “Enough already!” One of the movie’s four segments, in which Roberto Bennini plays a nebbish who wakes up one morning to find himself famous feels an awful like Stardust Memories, which of course is Woody doing Fellini, whom he also “does” here.  In another segment, Penelope Cruz (Spanish, but close enough for government work, I guess) plays a gorgeous hooker. Italian cinema is rife with such hooker characters — but so are Woody Allen films, as though they are just wandering around the world and one is constantly bumping into them, like UPS men.

Granted, this is a movie. Movies are make-believe, and lately Woody has been exploring his own version of magic realism, smashing naturalistic scenes together with pure fantasy. It’s valid and it’s distinctive, but it works better when he yields completely to that surreal imagination of his, as he does in my favorite sub-plot, in which Woody himself, as an opera impresario hires a tenor who can only sing in the shower…so he casts him in operas, shower and all. The lengths to which Allen the director brazens it out with this recurring gag are heroic, and it produced my heartiest guffaws. I wish there’d been more like it in the film. Another slightly hallucinatory sequence has Jesse Eisenberg and Alec Baldwin as a young architect and an old architect respectively who meet on the street, each seeming to be each other’s hallucination. The question of which it is, is never answered, which is one of my favorite aspects of the movie, although it did raise the hackles of many of the mentally challenged consumer reporters who write for various newspapers under the misappropriated title of “critic”.

Anyway, the movie has its moments, and quite frankly (he said sagely in all seriousness) I know how to fix it!

The main mistake I think is the fact he tried to interweave these four various stories together into a single cord. But they are not sufficiently alike thematically to justify their being of a piece, other than the fact that they are set in Rome. He should re-edit the film into its four separate constituent parts, and make it an anthology film, like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask or New York Stories. That structure would be more Decameron-like, anyway. Then, I would strengthen the Decameron set-up at the top (we are introduced to the film by a narrator, a traffic cop), and have him recur to set up each little vignette. Then we wouldn’t expect so much out of this film and each little segment could sink or swim on its own. The overall film would fulfill its (lowered) ambitions somewhat better, and we wouldn’t be tempted to be so hard on it.

And I bet Allen would have realized this, if he’d given himself a little more time to work on it.

Ah, chi se ne importa! Non ha alcuna importanza…

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