It’s a challenge to watch a movie with an open mind when you’ve already read and heard so much about it like I have about Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love. It feels like the whole world saw To Rome With Love before I did; it opened in Rome in the spring and Italians were, for the most part, very critical, accusing Allen of painting Rome and Italians with broad strokes and using too many clichés.
And even though American critics seemed to like it a little better, reviews have been divided; the New York Times gave it a rave review but the Wall Street Journal panned it. All this hubbub was making me very curious; would I love it or hate it and could I be even be unbiased enough to talk about it?
I think that I can. I neither loved nor hated To Rome With Love, and my husband and I noticed a few things that I haven’t heard others talk about. It’s a very imperfect movie and even quite boring in a few parts. Even with the beautiful cinematography and Rome as its subject, it lacks Midnight in Paris‘s charm. As my husband put it, “Woody Allen was trying to do something in this movie but he didn’t succeed”. It may take seeing it a few more times to decide what that something is, but my first reaction is to say that he was trying to poke fun at and also apologize for and maybe even explain a little the shallow world of being famous that he’s actively participated in most of his life. It’s not a condemnation of society, but neither is it an endorsement of the way we all seem to want our 5 minutes of fame.
Although Italian reviewers were insulted by the way Allen depicted Italians, To Rome With Love isn’t really about Italy; it just happens to be filmed there. In To Rome With Love, Woody Allen is trying to say something about fame, ego, and pretension and he uses Rome as a backdrop. I don’t think Romans should take it personally. To Rome With Love is not one story but several with a common theme. All of the characters in all of the stories are asking each other a question: “Who do we think we are?”
Though others have suggested that young Jack, played by Jesse Eisenberg is the Woody Allen character, that’s only half of it. The other half of the Woody Allen voice is Alec Baldwin‘s playing John, an architect vacationing in Rome and revisiting the street he once lived on briefly as a young man. John’s is the voice of reason in To Rome With Love, the only voice of reason, and his comments and observations serve as warnings for all of the characters in the movie, not just the ones in the vignette that he’s featured in. He points out everyone’s bullshit, but only because he’s been there and done that. Literally.
John “sees himself” in young Jack, and tries stop him from making mistakes that no one can stop a young person from making, like becoming infatuated with the wrong girl, and not being self-aware enough to even know that it’s the wrong girl. As John points out to Jack, the girl in question, Monica, played by Ellen Page, doesn’t really know anything about the poetry, literature, and art that she pretends to; she knows just enough to make it seem like she does. And a sensible boy’s suddenly insensible impulses rarely turn out the way he thinks it will.
Half of the movie features Italian actors, speaking Italian with subtitles, a neat idea and something I enjoyed. I’m not as critical of the Italian parts as others have been. I enjoyed seeing Antonio Albanese, Riccardo Scamarcio, Flavio Parenti and Donatella Finocchiaro in a Woody Allen movie and I got a kick out of reporters grilling Roberto Benigni about what he had for breakfast.
To Rome With Love is more exaggeration than cliché, and that’s intentional. It’s not just the Italians that get painted with a broad stroke; the part that Allen plays might be the biggest cliché of all, and that, I am sure, is not by accident. I’m not saying it works, and I don’t think that it does, but To Rome With Love is one giant hyperbole, a magnification and caricaturization of our egos. A good idea, but Woody Allen wasn’t clever enough to pull if off this time.