EXPECTATIONS: There's a rule of thumb with Woody Allen where every time he makes a good movie, he has to make two or three bad ones to make up for it. This is how he keeps up the appearance of being guilt-stricken and neurotic after fifty years. Midnight in Paris was one of my favorite films of last year, but it was also very much "Oh, hey, geez you guys, I'm sorry for making Whatever Works, I really am." On the other hand, since Midnight and Vicky Cristina Barcelona were both good films, perhaps Woody's new making-movies-at-my-vacation-spots phase is putting out positive results.
REALITY: All serious artists go through a cycle in their careers. When they start off, they claim they're making their art for the sake of art, and that they don't care what the mainstream and THE MAN thinks, man. Then eventually they decide that selling out is pretty cool if it means not, y'know, starving to death. This phase makes up the majority of their careers, and if they're well-received enough, they eventually get to the third phase. In their later years, having accomplished so much, the artist again stops caring what people think, and starts making works that don't really appeal to... well, pretty much anyone besides the artist and the people around them. Guess which phase Woody Allen is in?
In this candid photo, Woody Allen ambushes innocent diners with self-indulgent stories about himself.
To Rome With Love is an anthology film, following four distinct stories that have literally nothing to do with one another except for the fact that they all take place in Rome. Story A follows Allen himself, playing the father of an American student named Hayley, played by the wonderful Alison Pill. Also, the fact that Woody Allen cast Pill as his daughter proves that he has just as big a crush on her as I do. Hayley is engaged to Roman lawyer Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) and the trials of their young love are at the forefront of this...hahahaha, no. Then we wouldn't be paying attention to Woody Allen, now would we? Instead, Allen plays a failed opera promoter who discovers that his future in-law Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) has an amazing singing voice, but in a twist so wacky I'm pretty sure it was an episode of King of Queens, he can only do it IN THE SHOWER.
Story B involves a love triangle between a group of young Americans living in Rome.(Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, and Damsels In Distress' Greta Gerwig) Story C follows self-important Italian businessman Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni, best known to American audiences as This freakin' guy) who wakes up one morning to find that he's become a giant celebrity for no apparent reason, because it's SO CRAZY THAT PEOPLE ARE FAMOUS FOR BEING FAMOUS TODAY, RIGHT WOODY? RIGHT? Story D is actually pretty clever and enjoyable, but this has gone on too long already so we're not going to pay any attention to it. I don't feel bad for this in the slightest, because that's pretty much the way Allen treats it himself.
The main issue with this film is that it just feels so self-indulgent. Hell, half the cast wanders around talking about the "Ozmandias Melancholia," which is a completely bullshit psuedo-psychological phrase Woody Allen invented himself more than thirty years ago. (Unless that's the joke, but let's move on.) Allen casts himself as a misunderstood visionary who might also just be completely deluded. This is an example of Allen's trademark self-awareness, but then to have a character who is a psychiatrist specifically so they can spell out for the audience the implications of a scene is so self-congratulatory, it's basically wanking. This actually happens.
At one point, Judy Davis' character looks at the audience and explains the intricacies of Allen and Giancarlo's relationship. Woody, when you tell us out loud what the subtext is, it then ceases to be subtext. It becomes text-text, and you might think this is clever but it's actually exactly the opposite. It's literally removing whatever cleverness may have been there to begin with. And then to make yourself a character who is used to negative criticism and doesn't care about it? That's just blatantly transparent, sir.
Meanwhile, Allen tries to make a statement on the fleeting nature of celebrity with Leopoldo's story, and then ironically makes it go on forever. Similar to The Invention of Lying, It's like one of those SNL sketches, like the ones after Weekend Update but before the second musical guest appearance, where they're stalling to fill up time and the sketch goes on way too long, and wasn't that funny to begin with?
Alec Baldwin: SmoochgazerAs with most things involving him, Alec Baldwin is the highlight of this film. In one of Woody Allen's more famous films, Annie Hall, there's this great scene where Woody pulls philosopher Marshall McLuhan out of nowhere to shut up a loudmouthed guy in a movie line. First, let me point out the irony of Allen criticizing those who criticize "indulgent" filmmakers in that clip, and then second, let me explain that Alec Baldwin is basically Marshall McLuhan for this entire film. As Ellen Page does her Manic Pixie Dream Girl schtick, Baldwin plays basically the same Jack Donaghy character he's been running with since 30 Rock started. This means he plays a sort of "Spirit Guide" for Jesse Eisenberg's character, popping in and out of scenes at will to explain why whatever is currently happening is complete and utter bullshit. Everyone can see and hear him, all the characters interact with him, and by proxy the audience, but no one seems to care half the time. It's old-school Woody Allen, and the movie needed more of it.
Okay, before I close, let's do Story D. Antonio and Millie (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) are a young couple honeymooning in Rome who get separated right before they are supposed to meet Antonio's wealthy important relatives. (By the way, don't think I didn't pick up on that "show all the characters who are lost in life asking for directions" thing, Mr. Allen.) Things get complicated when a prostitute named Anna (Penelope Cruz) is sent to Antonio's room by mistake, and the relatives arrive in time to believe that Anna is Millie. Anna then poses as Antonio's wife for the rest of the day, while naive Millie is caught in an affair with a movie star.
Hey, you know what's a good idea for a movie? This. Just this, not the rest of this Paris J'etamie/New York I Love You rip-off tripe. I would happily watch Millie, Anna, and Antonio dance around each other for 100 minutes. Unfortunately, this story is placed on the back burner as we watch the rest of Allen's pedantic silliness. As interesting as it is that Allen plays a man who equates retirement to death, when he himself hasn't taken a year off since 1982, maybe it's time Woody Allen did take some time for himself. Allen famously doesn't watch his movies once they've been released, but maybe he should. He could remember what made them good.
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