Frothier than a badly made cappuccino, Woody Allen’s latest offering is all bubbles and no substance, the standard sort of fare we’ve come to associate with the great director’s later work.
Continuing on his Whistle-stop Tour of Europe for the Pseudo-intellectual Neurotic Middle Classes, Allen has chosen “the eternal city” of Rome on which to transpose his vignettes on love, art and growing old. The overall serving is a strange combination of genres – at once farce, comedy of errors, magic realism, romance, Italian sex comedy and satire – plated up with a range of celebrated actors. To Rome With Love appears to be sending up specific cultural worlds - the transience of reality television fame, experimentation in the opera world, classical versus radical architecture, but most of all, it’s his own style which he seems to be parodying. The result is a mostly silly, at times charming piece of entertainment that feels... just a little bit stale.
The film is split between four plots (which never intersect and have only the subtlest of common themes). In one, a retired architect (Alec Baldwin) meets a young architecture student called Jack (a wonderful Jesse Eisenberg), living in the bohemian Trastevere area of Rome with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). When a neurosis-ridden actress friend of Sally’s comes to stay (a pitch-perfect Ellen Page, sure to be Allen’s new muse if he has any sense), sparks (naturally) fly. Baldwin is wonderful as the romantic overseer (reminiscent of the Humphrey Bogart figure in Allen’s Play It Again, Sam), though the director makes little attempt at consistency – is Baldwin’s character real or a meta device? Is he a version of Jack in the future? Why can he only talk to Jack, but then occasionally also the women? Allen doesn’t seem to care, so we probably shouldn’t either.
A young New Yorker (wide-eyed Alison Pill who played Zelda in Allen’s Midnight in Paris) is travelling in Rome, where she falls into the arms of a hunky Roman leftie lawyer (Flavio Parenti) who is, like one of hundreds of cultural clichés in the film, called Michelangelo. When they get engaged, her parents pay her a visit. Cue some familiar (and wildly comforting) classic Woody Allen tropes: a psychoanalyst mother (Judy Davis), and a retired neurotic music producer father (played by Woody Allen is his first acting role since 2006’s Scoop). Allen does his timeless neurotic Jewish intellectual thing brilliantly, as the ‘avant-garde’ producer fixated on the hidden operatic talent of his daughter’s future father-in-law. Played by the celebrated tenor Fabio Armiliato, he is a funeral director who can only sing in the shower.
In one of the two weaker plots, a man (Roberto Benigni) wakes up a celebrity for no reason; this one-joke plot very quickly becomes tiresome. In the other, a young Italian couple arrive in Rome only to be separated in a comedy of errors involving a busty, Betty Boop-esque prostitute (played with as much energy as can be mustered by a fabulous Penelope Cruz in a role so clearly beneath her) and a famous Italian movie star (Antonio Albanese). The message to be gained, if any, is rather confusing: a good shag with someone attractive who isn’t your newlywed partner does wonders for romance?
The two Italian stories are infinitely weaker, a telling insight into the ‘Italian-ness’ of the film. Rome appears – from the Vespas, the bars, the Trevi fountain and the opening song “Volare” - like a postcard-happy cultural cliché – sort of like having a Pannetone shoved unwillingly down your windpipe. The cinematography, in the hands of Darius Khondji, is gorgeous, but this is not a Rome we haven’t seen before. To be fair to Allen, social realism isn’t really his shtick; his cities of choice – Paris, London, Barcelona – are only ever backdrops for the emotions of the upper middle classes from the Lower East Side.
The good bits are fun, escapist flights of fancy set in gorgeously lit Roman ruins and bars. The bad bits – and I fear there are a couple too many – are stale and cliché-ridden, near parodies of the director’s previous work. Not great, but I’ll still probably go see the next one...
Follow Sophia on Twitter: @SophiaSB1