I still remember exactly how I felt as To Rome with Love drew to a close. I remember staring up at the ending credits with a bewildered look in my eyes. I remember chuckling to myself, softly, nervously, and repeating the same thing over and over again:
“What was that?”
To Rome with Love feels somewhere between a half-finished film and something that was never really a film at all. It attempts to be a breezy, lighthearted romp through the heart of sunny Italy, telling four short, comedic tales and showing off plenty of Rome’s most famous landmarks, but ends up displaying more love for the sights and sounds of the city itself than it does for things like an engaging story or likable characters. The end result is a film that’s completely disjointed and instantly forgettable, like something that’s a cross between a Woody Allen film and a commercial for a travel agency selling tours of Italy. The thought even crossed my mind that To Rome with Love was just a handful of old, forgotten stories cobbled together to create a script that would give Woody Allen and all the cast and crew an excuse to film something during an extended Italian vacation.
That might be a little much, but there’s a kernel of truth in there, considering that in an interview with Cinemablend, Allen mentions how he wrote the script using old, unused ideas after being given the opportunity to film something that was specifically set in Rome by an Italian production company.
So perhaps To Rome with Love was thrown together a bit quickly, and perhaps it’s more a collection of throwaway, quirky stories then it is anything truly deep and meaningful, but it still could have been a fun, if somewhat forgettable two-hour romp where classic Woody Allen neuroses are injected with a bit of Italian culture and humor.
Sadly, the film can’t even manage that.
What’s instantly clear about To Rome with Love is just how safe and easy everything feels. The vast majority of the film moves in simple, predictable patterns (the American tourist falling in love with a handsome Italian or the man in a safe relationship being tempted by a more wild woman), with each segment having precisely one element that makes it unique. Sometimes this element is fairly important to the story, like Roberto Benigni’s character becoming an overnight celebrity for no reason, and sometimes it’s more incidental, like a subconscious Alec Baldwin in the Jesse Eisenberg/Greta Gerwig/Ellen Page love triangle. In all four cases, however, it almost seems like the film is just killing time to get to that one spark of creativity in each segment, and there’s nothing in the dialogue or the characters to make all that downtime even remotely interesting.
Which is a shame, because when To Rome with Love actually attempts something clever, it can actually be raucously funny. When Benigni’s Leopoldo Pisanello mumbles through a late-night TV interview about how he likes to eat toast, or Woody Allen’s Jerry figures out the perfect, bizarre venue for the singing talents of his future son-in-law’s father, the film feels quick-witted and inventive, and clearly bears the touch of Allen’s particular brand of humor. Of course, it also helps that these two scenes in particular feature the strongest actors in the film- Allen, Benigni, and famed Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato.
Everything else in the film feels like dead weight. By far, the biggest offender is the aforementioned Eisenberg/Gerwig/Page love triangle. The film (through the form of an Alec Baldwin that apparently lives in everyone’s collective subconscious) gives us plenty of reasons why Page should be unlikable- she’s constantly spouting off buzzwords, name-dropping famous architects and artists she probably doesn’t know anything about, and overall seems like an incredibly unpleasant and fake human being- yet her relationship with Eisenberg continues to grow despite there being very little that’s attractive about her. This, in turn, makes Eisenberg seem just as unsympathetic. Add in dialogue that consists of nothing more than referencing famous Roman landmarks and characters blatantly spouting off exactly how they’re feeling, and you get sequence after sequence that had me groaning audibly and checking my watch for when Woody Allen or someone else with actual charisma would show up onscreen.
This kind of tedium is present in nearly every level of the film, albeit to different degrees. The story of Jesse Eisenberg and his two would-be lovers definitely gets the worst of it, however. The Italian newlyweds and their out-of-place prostitute (Penelope Cruz) fares a bit better, if only because Cruz is able to milk some easy laughs out of a “prostitute in a high-society gathering” gag. And from here things only improve. The tale of Roberto Benigni’s average schmuck who becomes a worldwide celebrity for no reason is still able to coast by on the endearingness of Benigni’s performance, even if it is essentially the same bit over and over again. It also doesn’t help that the whole thing ends up devolving into a cheap little shot at the Paris Hilton/Kim Kardashian gossip rag celebrity, but still, this segment definitely feels like one of the better ones.
And the story of two newlyweds and their respective fathers (Allen and tenor Armiliato) is best of all. Allen’s presence alone is enough to keep a small, constant stream of chuckles going, and the high point of the story (a gag I hesitate to spoil because it’s easily the cleverest thing in the film) feels out of place because of how funny it is when compared to the rest of the movie.
So To Rome with Love is certainly redeemable in a few ways. It may not be great. It may not even be good. But there are at least a few moments that’ll have you smiling, if you somehow find yourself stuck in a theater with Woody Allen’s latest playing up on the screen and no emergency exit in sight.
But there’s one aspect I have yet to cover, and it is so bizarre that I felt it necessary to save it for the end, thus highlighting how truly weird it is.
And that’s the way this film handles adultery.
Now, there’s not really a running theme between any of the four stories featured in To Rome with Love. About the closest you could get is that in three out of those four stories, one or more characters end up cheating on their respective spouse/partner. But the strange part is that not a single character suffers any negative consequences from having cheated. Really, only one character even feels remorse over cheating, and it’s implied later that his remorse is unfounded when that act of adultery actually improves the quality of his relationship. Seeing character after character cheat while everyone in the film displays either total indifference (there are multiple instances where the partner being cheated on regards it with a shrug and then moves on as though it’s an incredibly minor slight) or positive reinforcement gives the impression that To Rome with Love takes place in some parallel universe populated by unfeeling sociopaths. This ends up creating a massive disconnect with the world being presented onscreen and the world normal human beings actually live in.
It’s such a baffling way to look at relationships, and the fact that it happens again and again throughout the film actually made me feel a little uncomfortable by the time the movie was over. Beyond that, I really don’t know what to say. It’s so bizarre and so unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a film that I had a hard time even putting my thoughts about it into words after I left the theater.
So would I recommend To Rome with Love?
The short answer is no.
A slightly longer answer is, “no, but if you’re a die-hard Woody Allen fan or you’re so desperate for laughs that you’d sift through a few hours of tedium for a handful of good belly laughs, then it might be worth your time.”
Although really, in both of those cases I think you’d be better off just re-watching an old Woody Allen film. Try Sleeper. Or Annie Hall. Both of those are pretty good.