To Rome With Love

MENTOR/MENTEE RELATIONSHIP: Alec Baldwin offers some romantic advice to Jesse Eisenberg in 'To Rome With Love.' Photo by Philippe Antonello (c) Gravier Productions, Inc.

It's not that To Rome With Love was built in a day. But watching the new Woody Allen film, one remembers the recent PBS documentary in which the director/writer showed off the filing cabinet he's been keeping for decades containing typewritten ideas for films. To Rome With Love looks as if he threw three or four of these fortune-cookie slips of paper together.

To Rome With Love delivers huge helpings of Roman vistas, including a 360-degree shot of the Piazza del Popolo. The swooning views of the city are accompanied with musical familiarities: "Volare," of course, and "Arrivederci, Roma." At least, there is far better accordion playing here than in Midnight in Paris.

The pangs this film causes to those who haven't been to Rome—or to those who have been and miss it—are mitigated by jokes older than Tacitus. One sample: a tourist's comment about Michelangelo working on the Sistine ceiling, "Imagine spending all that time on your back." And a whore replies ...

It's a sprawling, multipart tale; Allen was thinking Boccaccio, or at least Boccaccio '70 (1962). He has Pen–lope Cruz as a Santa Sophia surrogate. She plays a gold-hearted hooker interfering with a bewildered newlywed man (Alessandro Tiberi) and his very pretty and shy wife (Alessandra Mastronardi).

Cruz concludes her utter conquest of Lorenism by getting a retro hairstyle, speaking Italian and wearing a skintight crimson dress displaying what the Firesign Theater termed "a balcony you could recite Shakespeare off of." Why couldn't Allen figure out a better way to introduce such a rare sight than with the immemorial farce that begins: "Surprise! You have just won a free prostitute!"

In a different triangle, Ellen Page plays a flighty actress visiting a couple named Jack and Sally (Jesse Eisenberg and a squandered Greta Gerwig). Page describes a lesbian sexual encounter during a dinner with the couple; Eisenberg's Jack makes a memorable face, exactly like a dog being trained by having a biscuit balanced on its nose.

As an unasked-for mentor, Alec Baldwin materializes to warn Jack about all those irresponsible trifling dames who listen to Bartok and pretend to read Yeats. (Take Allen's word for it, such girls are still roaming loose, wreaking havoc.)

While Allen has long been stealing the energy of young actors to make himself youthful, he should have left a little more blood in Page. She looks even more like a director's relentless construct than she did in Juno.

Allen himself is aboard as a retiree going to Rome with his wife (Judy Davis, another rare sight). His time-tested chicken-liveredness begins on the Alitalia flight: "Turbulence, my favorite!"

Roberto Benigni, sprung from movie jail, stars in a snippet about the price of fame. He plays a dull businessman besieged by paparazzi. We wait for Benigni's Daffy Duck moment—something like the explosion he detonated at the Palermo opera house in Johnny Stecchino (1991). His pants-dropping tirade is another undernourished payoff.

I have cold admiration for To Rome With Love's old-time showbiz canniness. If one despairs at the Neil Simonized lines, one admires Allen's time-honored way with staging a punch line, as in the film's capping joke, an expensively mounted finale about a great opera singer who can only perform in one condition.

Baldwin certainly looks like he has a movie in him; he's all suave world-weariness. Unfortunately, Allen gives him lines that Cary Grant couldn't sell. Who goes to Rome and murmurs that "all these old ruins depress me"?

To Rome With Love (it probably could have been Rome, Italian Style as per SCTV) charms with its postcard views, but not with the pat finish of its various moral tales. Two separate characters complain of "Ozymandias melancholia" as they get in the way of the scenery. Ozymandias indeedias—what's falling apart here, Rome or Woody Allen?

By weird coincidence, on a recent Mad Men episode, a young ad copywriter flashed his portfolio and boasted, "Look upon my works, ye mighty." Someone else in the room snapped, "Read the rest of the poem, you boob."

To Rome With Love

R, 102 Min

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