One of the winning lines of Woody Allen’s latest comedy comes near the conclusion of one of its four stories, when a young character pronounces that “with age comes wisdom.” “With age comes exhaustion,” his gruff older companion replies.
The line, whether consciously or unconsciously designed to be so, proves descriptive of the overall work; where there are faults in the film – and there are many – they seem to emerge not from lack of talent, but from exhaustion of it. (If any filmmaker deserves to be exhausted, it’s Allen, with 45 films in 46 years, but that’s beside the point).
A collection of four stories related only (if at all) thematically, To Rome With Love speaks to Allen’s continued creativity and casually eloquent style, but also to his fading commitment to the sheer grunt work of film-making.
Of the three middling stories, Allen’s is well-worn but comfortable; Benigni’s well-premised but uneventful; Tiberi and Mastronardi’s ludicrous. The fourth, the agonizingly inevitable seduction of a young architect by his girlfriend’s best friend, is the major success – at worst familiar, at best deliciously cynical.
In this story, the film gives us the type of exhaustion that we want: the exhaustion bred of wisdom that emerges only in the face of those people and situations in life which are best ignored or simply avoided altogether.
Alec Baldwin, as the aging foil to the young Eisenberg, is the voice of this exhaustion, and his resigned cynicism in the face of Eisenberg’s attraction to a narcissistic pseudo-intellectual yields laughs so consistently because we can recognize in ourselves the voice of a conscience that delivers not only moral suggestions, but practical ones.
The human inability to avoid tragedy even when it stems from one’s own well-informed decisions is probably best treated with humour, and it turns out to be a delight to see it played on film, as Baldwin’s frantic and obviously insightful warnings are with equal alacrity disregarded by the characters and then validated by the plot. Some Allen tropes are used to good effect in this story, too; a scene suggestive of Greek drama is quite funny, while the story’s central conceit soundly evinces the humourous merit of Allen’s sense of the surreal.
The success of this story rests on the director’s strength in satire, but the marginal effort of Benigni’s tale, in which a regular man becomes a celebrity for no apparent reason, suggests Allen’s corresponding weaknesses.
The evocative premise quickly becomes a one-note joke which sharply contrasts the precise, gleeful skewering of Eisenberg and Page, as Benigni’s material, amusing in introduction, quickly proves intractable in the attempt for comedic momentum. Allen is an effective satirist of humans, but not, perhaps, of humanity or society; the greater successes of his earlier Celebrity, which made many of the same arguments, stemmed from the film’s specific focus on synecdochic characters rather than on what they represented. The result is that Benigni’s story is the most disappointing of the four.
The other two – a retiree’s attempts to stage an opera with his soon-to-be brother-in-law, and the extra-marital temptations of two young newlyweds – are squarely within Allen’s by now totally familiar range, and are unlikely to move either detractors or admirers from their respective sides. There is a measure of exhaustion creeping into Allen’s treatment of adultery, too; where once he strived to examine, and sometimes to validate, he seems now only to indicate resignation. Benigni’s adultery is utter fantasy, played simply for laughs, but the film approaches the Italian couple’s potential trysts with such matter-of-factness that it almost carries an air of frustration. Perhaps the film leaves it to the viewer to deconstruct the two’s motivations, but more likely, it simply suggests that there is nothing to deconstruct that is worth our time.
There’s a basic sloppiness to the film, and while it can occasionally be endearing at the script level, creating an off-kilter tone, which keeps the audience un-anticipatory and strengthens the jokes, it is otherwise disengaging. Much of the success of Allen’s last, Midnight in Paris, was likely due to its tightness and its cohesion – whether they should or not, contemporary audiences seem to have been largely dispossessed of the ability to engage with films that ramble, even in the best sense of the word – and Rome, sadly, displays little of that quality.
The characters are typically varied and well-defined, and the comedy retains much of the innocent wit and silliness that characterizes Allen’s earlier work (“If you’re channeling Freud, ask for my money back,” Allen quips to his psychoanalyzing wife), but there is no sense of cohesion even where there is thematic unity; the stories could seemingly have been intercut in any order and at any point, and when the conclusion of one arrives, there is no sense of it having had an effect on the others.
Worse is the evidence of simple laziness. Several rough patches in scenes throughout the film seem to be the product of little more than Allen’s disinterest in filming another take (such as with various flubbed lines or rough moments of improvisation) or staying late in the editing room (such as with occasionally awkward edits).
Allen’s staple melancholy tone – so often pervasive in his later work, thrusting a sort of sad state of grace on the audience throughout – doesn’t come through as strongly as usual here, and it may well be due to these seeming trivialities. The film is hardest to engage with, as any would be, when it doesn’t seem to be making a full effort. As always, however, even Allen’s less satisfactory work stands out for the director’s technical mastery, classic sensibilities, and imagination. To Rome With Love is a far shot from the director’s best, and at times it’s downright boring, but it’s frequently rewarding and agreeably unique among contemporary films.
To Rome With Love
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Roberto Benigni, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page
Runtime 102 mins