Monday, August 6, 2012

Squalor: To Rome with Love

 
Though I'd come across some scathing reviews in the critical community, there was never any question of whether or not I'd wind up eventually going to see To Rome with Love.  Like every self-respecting pseudo-intellectual, opinionated, hipster film disciple: I take my Woody Allen watching as seriously as one can.  When you follow the strange cult of Woody Allen, you get used to the naysayers.  With the exception of universal crowd pleaser Midnight in Paris, it seems as though nearly every Allen film opens with a touch of derision.  He's a man who specializes in a certain brand of comedy and who draws inspiration from a handful of oft-repeated themes: troubled relationships, adultery, celebrity, neurosis, the existential, ongoing twin focus of love and death.  He repeats himself often, and when he's at his best Allen typically evolves or re-contextualizes the joke.  At his worst?  He's a mimic performing a slightly more uncomfortable parody of himself.
In To Rome with Love, the usual Allen subplots rear their heads across four separate story-lines: a young woman's (Alison Pill) parents (Allen and Judy Davis) fly in to Rome to meet her Italian fiance and his incidentally talented family, a middle class nobody (Roberto Benigni) wakes up to discover he's famous for nothing, an American architecture student (Jesse Eisenberg) struggles with a moral dilemma when his girlfriend's (Greta Gerwig) neurotically-seductive best friend (Ellen Page) flies into town, and, finally, a newlywed couple about to meet his relatives stumbles into a comedy of errors involving a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) and a questionable actor.   If it sounds a bit repetitive already, that's because it is.  If certain storylines stick out with a glaring WTF, that's because they do.  Given adequate time, attention, and consideration, several of these threads could have been shaped into something perhaps strong enough for a Vicky Cristina style European sex-romp. Together they tangle into a pasta bowl mess of metanarratives, staggering cliches, and strange comic set pieces which - while occasionally rather amusing - never seem to tonally adhere to the "hey, look at all the different crazy stories we've got over here in Rome" motif sloppily bookending the film's various chapters.
Though I found myself actively attempting to just sit back and enjoy the film as a frothy summer comedy, a case of the cringe crept in time and again.  My thoughts jumped constantly from points of reference I knew I'd seen before (Felliniesque themes, Night on Earth structure, self-referencing to the point of becoming 'indulgent' (see what I did there?)) to head shaking doubt, to moments where I though "oh, that was pretty good" and then immediately wondered if the film just had me in a Stockholm Syndrome grip.  To this moment, I'm not sure if the elements I enjoyed or found intriguing about To Rome with Love were actually entertaining or if I was searching too hard for something to grab onto and try to love.  Was the opera gag funny?  It was at least cute. Were there some wry observations on the 'type of girl' Ellen Page plays here?  Definitely.  Does that make up for the way all the characters are archetypes?  The painfully rigid presence of Alec Baldwin the spectral conscience? The fact that the Benigni story runs like an animated non sequitur?  How over the top every note seems to hit? The disjointed lack of connective tissue between the subplots? The way that Rome is a backdrop of almost no consequence and the cast could have been cut in half?  Not really.
For those who don't identify as Woody Allen fans, To Rome with Love may be just the harmless, cutesy little jaunt down the Via Veneto you're looking for.  And, to be fair, I've seen Allen films I've disliked more.  Compared to typical Hollywood comedies, To Rome isn't terrible, but merely lazy.  We can hope it's just an adverse reaction to the success of Midnight in Paris.  Box office attention brings unexpected pressure, and Allen has become used to releasing his one film a year in relative silence.  The lack of effort, though, is problematic.  Alison Pill and Greta Gerwig, both of whom should be right at home with Woody Allen's dialogue, are completely wasted here.  To a certain extent, Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page are as well.  All of these actors should be superstars in this arena, but the script never gives them any quotable moments or any chances at becoming dynamic.  Those four young actors cast in one, continuous, debauched Roman tale of studies abroad gone awry could have led to something fresh and engaging.  Somehow, that never happens.  And when Jesse Eisenberg can't manage to do Woody Allen as well as Scarlett Johansson has in the past? You know there's a problem.






6 comments:

  1. That's such a shame, I was really looking forward to this film, and had such high hopes for it! Still, at least I got this great write-up out of it.

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    1. I really had high hopes too. Been enjoying reading all the reviews from others on dashed expectations with this one, so some good has come of it.

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  2. I can only say it again: a Woody Allen film is either great or not great.

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    1. Haha, an emphatic declaration. I tend to agree on most of them, though there have been a few over the past couple decades that I liked well enough without loving.

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  3. Loved the last line of the review :) It seems like such a perfect cast, but I keep reading all those reviews that say the story is weak. I think maybe Allen should slow down, one movie every two years for a change would be nice if it meant we only got good movies.

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    1. Perhaps. Then again, if every other one is a standout, there might be something to exorcising the crap onto the public. Tough call.

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