Woody Allen continues his European odyssey with To Rome with Love (2012), intertwining multiple stories which attempt to paint a portrait of life in the Eternal City. The various plots stretch across the social scale, including an Italian worker who finds himself an overnight celebrity (Roberto Benigni), a young pair of Italian newly-weds who become involved with a prostitute (Penelope Cruz), and a soon-to-be-married couple (Jess Eisenberg and Greta Gerwig) who are having their parents meet for the first time.
These separate tales are designed to show Rome as a place of ancient wonder and vibrant contemporary life. Sadly, the result is a disjointed, meandering series of vignettes shown with a level of cultural understanding that you would expect from the very worst kind of camera-totting American tourist. There’s a loose framing device throughout To Rome with Love, which begins with an Italian traffic cop introducing us to the plethora of intermingled narratives – a structure quickly abandoned in order to get stuck into the more meatier morsels of the film.
In his famed novel The Decameron (Allen’s latest was originally referred to as ‘Bop Decameron’), 14th century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio tells over a hundred different short stories from a group of travellers escaping the Black Death. Allen has borrowed and loosely adapted this concept with an at-times humorous and contemporary twist. Yet whilst the multiple narratives are laced with the kind of witty one-liners we’ve come to expect from the prolific filmmaker, the results are at best patchy. There is none of the intelligence and insight that we had once come to expect from Allen, and To Rome with Love feels like just another throwaway effort.
The ensemble cast is undeniably impressive on paper, with a perky performance from Cruz as a sultry hooker and Alec Baldwin thoroughly refreshing as an ageing architect returning to Rome – even if he is just replicating his 30 Rock persona. The most enjoyable turns, however, come from the Italian members of the cast, which include the Academy Award-winning Benigni and renowned opera singer Fabio Armiliato. The latter plays a funeral director who can only sing well in the shower. This story takes on a Buñuelian-lite twist with a semi-comical performance of Toscanini’s Pagliacci in a shower cubicle.
When the familiar Windsor typeface credits roll, audiences could be forgiven for left thinking only of the plethora of push-up bras and chinos that populate the screen, followed by sudden bemusement as to why Allen even bothered to set his film in Rome. With each subsequent releases, the better-than-average Midnight in Paris (2011) aside, even Allen’s most loyal of fans must be starting to wonder why the once great director keeps on producing such dull material.