I can’t unclench when there’s turbulence.
— Jerry (Woody Allen)
It can’t be a good sign that Alec Baldwin is the character with a clue in To Rome with Love. Neither is it helpful that he’s the film’s designated expert on women. But here he is, offering advice on female vagaries to Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) — who may or may not be a younger version of Baldwin’s character, John.
Their relationship will serve to articulate the movie’s fundamental theme, the same theme you’ve seen in every other Woody Allen movie: men want what they don’t have. And their relationship begins clumsily, as so many do in Woody Allen movies: John wanders the streets of Rome in search of the apartment where he lived as a young, aspiring architect, exactly what Jack happens to be. Impressed by the fact that John now is a famous and wealthy designer of shopping malls, Jack invites him to his place, just about where John might have lived. Here, Jack promises, his live-in fiancée Sally (Greta Gerwig) will make them some great espresso, because she’s especially good at that.
As soon as you hear that, you know Sally’s in trouble, like other women who do certain things well in Woody Allen movies. In this case, that trouble arrives in the form of Monica (Ellen Page), Sally’s best friend and an easily distracted and mightily shallow actress. Suffering from a recent breakup, she arrives on Sally’s doorstep, which is to say, Jack’s doorstep. And yes, he wants her, because she’s what he doesn’t have.
John sees instantly that this is a bad idea. To a point, Baldwin is playing himself here, or that version of himself he plays for Capital One Bank, refitted to the Woody Allen formula so that he resembles, say, Humphrey Bogart, dispensing advice to the hapless manchild who can’t quite hear him. The reason Jack can’t hear John is unclear, except that he must fulfill the movie’s demand that he make a series of bad decisions regarding Sally and Monica. Even as John informs him, essentially point by point, that Monica is shallow and dishonest when she name-drops Yeats or admires Gaudi, Jack is stuck in his first gear, which is to say, the movie’s one joke. To Rome With Love doesn’t spend a lot of time pondering Jack’s own selfishness, dishonesty, or stupidity, because, well, such attributes in Woody Allen movies are motivated by women, those perpetually elusive obsessions of clueless, questing men, who then fall into such bad behavior, not because they’re mean, necessarily, but because they’re slow. It’s hilarious, apparently, that every time they might get what they think they want, they find something else to want.
To Rome with Love offers up too many of these questing men. As if the John-Jack plot is not repetitive enough, the film cuts around between three other versions of it. One begins with Leopoldo Pisanello (Roberto Benigni), bored with his routine at home and at the office, imagining how great it would be to bed his boss’ leggy secretary, or have money and fame. He must learn a lesson about lusting, and so he’s given one of those magical happenstances that befall people in Woody Allen movies. Leopoldo doesn’t even have need of a magic box, a magic cab or a hit on the head. He just walks out his front door one morning and he’s famous, hounded by reporters and pursued by leggy ladies. When he wonders how he’s become so desired, why TV viewers might want to know how he likes his toast, he’s notified by his driver, “You’re famous for being famous.”
Really? This is what passes for revelation in To Rome with Love. Equally redundant is the story of Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) and Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi), a pair of newlywed country bumpkins who come to Rome so he can take a job with some mucky-muck relatives. Desperate to impress them, Antonio reluctantly agrees when Milly insists she has to get her hair fixed before they head to their dinner date, because, she says, “I look like a smalltown school teacher,” you know, what she supposedly is. Once she’s on the street, Milly is promptly lost and also loses her cell phone, which means she’s off on an adventure, involving a casually lusty movie star Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese).
Her absence sets the stage for Antonio’s own adventure, namely, his entanglement with a hooker, Anna (Penélope Cruz). Like all the hookers in Woody Allen movies, she’s spectacular, squeezed into a red dress and teetering on prodigious heels. Like those other hookers, she will teach the hapless hero a few things, like how to have sex, and also how to read a scene they happen on, wherein his wife is across the room in a restaurant, with the lusty Luca, who is, Anna instructs so wisely, “making love to her with his eyes.”
Again with the revelation that’s lifted from every other Woody Allen movie, not to mention the many other movies it steals from. It’s a piling on that finds an especially grating culmination in the Woody Allen plotline. Here he plays Jerry, a recently retired opera producer who travels to Rome with his exasperated wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) in order to meet their daughter Hayley’s (Alison Pill) fiancé, the nonprofit-inclined lawyer Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). While Jerry worries about the upcoming marriage (couldn’t she have found someone interested in making money?) and also about his own desires — you know, wanting what he doesn’t have.
Phyllis, a therapist, spends a minute or two trying to reassure Jerry and also dig into his deepest fears — because, you know, this is what women do. “You did fine,” she begins, “Your problem was you were just a little bit ahead of your time.” This by way of explaining the public criticism that still makes him wince, concerning his staging of Rigoletto with the performers dressed up as white mice (this unseen sight gag comes up a few times in the film, which is to say, it becomes, er, repetitive). His latest version of same is Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), Michelangelo’s father and a mortician by trade. When Jerry discovers that Giancarlo sings beautifully in the shower, he urges him to sing for money. “There’s a lot of pleasure in money,” Jerry suggests, “It’s green and crinkly, you can fondle the bills.”
When Giancarlo agrees to go along, Jerry devises new productions of famous operas wherein Giancarlo can ride out on stage in a shower. Suffice it to say that this is a repeated sight gag that’s worn out pretty much instantly. In this, of course, it’s of a piece with the rest of To Rome with Love. You might, if you were John, see the movie as an expanded and exponentially more irritating version of Monica, that “self-absorbed pseudo-intellectual” who borrows ideas from everyone else but can’t turn them around into anything new. “I think Rome is so charismatic,” she gushes at one point, trying to cajole Jack into leaving Sally for her, because she can. John’s eyes narrow. “Bullshit,” he says. Exactly.