Woody Allen fell for Barcelona and Paris in his previous destination-based films Vicky Christina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris. The notable director and screenwriter’s latest European romp To Rome With Love is no exception, serving as a cinematic love letter to the city of ancient ruins, rich culture and eccentric personalities.
As with many of Allen’s works — particularly last year’s monster success Midnight in Paris — the stunning cinematography is the true highlight of the film. The romantic lighting and vivid colors paint an authentic portrait of life in Italy, as if Allen is manipulating his detailed camera work to convey his love affair with Rome.
And this love for Rome appears fitting, as much of the film centers on themes of passion, romance and relationships. When it comes down to it, the film tells a tale of desire, be that the desire for sex, fame or simply another life: Every character wants something more.
Though an interesting concept, the overall theme is too vague, even despite the fact that the film takes the time to examine the varying shapes desire takes. Accordingly, the film doesn’t know what story it wants to tell and lacks the focus necessary to tell a cohesive, meaningful narrative.
Specifically, the film follows four storylines: an engaged couple whose parents are meeting for the first time, an average business and family man who becomes famous for no apparent reason, a married couple with a dysfunctional sexual relationship and a young couple that struggles to stay together when a seductive friend comes to town.
These characters are connected by their appetite for more, and that’s about it. The film simply showcases their experiences in Rome, but these experiences don’t amount to anything. It’s as if Allen took a backseat and just let the characters mosey through the film with no real direction or purpose.
Granted, some films focus just on its characters and don’t need some awe-inspiring, greater meanings. Here, however, there’s simply no motivating force to keep the viewer interested.
These narrative flaws feel all the more frustrating considering the film’s all-star cast, which brims with potential. Funnyman Alec Baldwin takes hilarious digs at indie darling Ellen Page as she charms her way into the heart of her best friend’s boyfriend, played by Jesse Eisenberg. Penélope Cruz shines as a witty, endearing hooker who makes cracks about her trade. Then there’s Allen himself, who at long last makes his return to acting with his signature snarky attitude in tow; in this case, however, his character feels tired rather than one worth welcoming with open arms.
These characters have the potential to become full and rich, but in the end serve little purpose as their importance to the narrative is unclear, making them seem trivial.
On the upside, the cast’s talents and Allen’s quirky screenwriting create for a few memorable comedic moments. The painfully ordinary Leopaldo (Roberto Benigni) becomes famous out of the blue, allowing a series of mundane questions from the press about his eating and grooming habits to follow suit to great comic effect. Then there’s Jerry’s (Allen) soon-to-be in-law, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), whom Jerry convinces to sing opera onstage for a crowd, though Giancarlo can only muster such courage in a shower.
Small moments like these allow the audience to see that the veteran filmmaker is still kicking with eccentric charm, but this subtle humor fails to shine throughout the rest of the film, serving as yet another instance of To Rome With Love’s rich potential but failure to follow through.
This is truly aggravating, as Allen has all the right ingredients: A knack for screenwriting, an impressive cast, spellbinding cinematography and a beautiful location to shoot. Consequently, To Rome With Love looks great on a superficial level, but the film ultimately feels like a jumbled mess that lacks direction and the developed characters of Vicky Christina Barcelona or the focused narrative of Midnight in Paris.
Despite all its potential, by the end the film it’s clear: Allen seems to be only one in the movie truly taken by Rome and all that it has to offer.