Woody Allen’s films of late have moved from New York to other romanticised cities of the world. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen tries out sex, seduction and ménage-trois in Spain. In 2011, Paris in the 20s was the director’s muse du jour, and this year Allen headed to Rome for his latest directorial exploration. I saw the film in July in Paris, one of the advantages of travelling since films always come out in other countries before Australia.
Unfortunately, it seems as though Allen is gradually losing his touch. His cult films, Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Shadows and Fog (1991), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) and Manhattan (1979), were standouts as works of quirky experimentation and dark, sardonic humour from the supposed self-hating Jewish caricature that Allen often plays. Now, however, the romanticised touch that acted as a peripheral aspect in his early films now seems to take centre stage, as the script and cinematography becomes drenched with glamourised imagery. Such was true for Midnight in Paris (2011), although MIP still had its charm and nostalgic literary value, a treat for literati who love Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
To Rome with Love, on the other hand, is almost too saccharine that it undermines any sort of charm the characters may have executed. This is not to say that the film exudes only romantic themes; in fact it also touches on prostitution and adultery to mercifully provide a much needed edge to the storylines. However, the weakness is palpable compared with his earlier films. Allen seems to have replaced the neurotic characters his films are famous for, in favour of insipid leads. Owen Wilson for MIP, and in Rome, Jesse Eisenberg plays a banal young version of Alec Baldwin’s character. The more interesting plotlines focus on a blasé attitude to infidelity and prostitution. Penelope Cruz, who played the crazed ex-wife of Javier Bardem in Barcelona, here stars as a prostitute who is mistaken for a man’s wife, and then must play conventional good-girl while trying to avoid recognition from her many admiring clients.
The plotline I liked the most, however, was an apt reflection of the contemporary celebrity syndrome of 15 minutes of fame, and of being famous for no reason. Roberto Benigni (from Life is Beautiful– 1997) plays a character who unwittingly finds himself the focus of celebrity-mad fans, who effectively turn him into a celebrity overnight. The character, contrary to real life fame-mad seekers, is clearly disconcerted by his mysterious obtainment of fame, but slowly begins to take advantage of it by giving in to the various women pursuing him, and also being granted access to special events. Once the public tires of his time in the limelight, the character is distraught as he has come to develop a taste for celebrity. As this plotline was delivered in Italian (instead of English for most of the other plots), I needed to rely on the French subtitles to explain the dialogue.
There are great similarities to MIP in terms of the characters. We have another pseudo-intellectual in the guise of Eisenberg’s Kierkegaard-obsessed architect (and to another extent Ellen Page’s near-intolerable pseudo-philosopher). While Paul Sheehan’s Sorbonne lecturer Paul from MIP was enjoyable to despise, these two are just banal and irritating.
There are also the right-wing parents (Allen and an enjoyable Judy Davis); Allen is a retired composer and Davis a psychologist, both of whom are fond of money. Allen’s character, in particular, is endearingly close to his neurotic self when he questions an indifference to wealth. There is more depth in the plotline surrounding Allen and Davis, with some clever lines from Davis: ‘Your brain is made up of three ids.’ Allen, whose character associates retirement with death, attempts to exploit the voice of his son-in-law’s father, whose operatic voice only emerges while singing in the shower.
Allen still retains much of his characteristic neuroticism; as Phillipe Lanҫon writes in Le Monde, ‘Woody Allen jouant à la caricature de Woody Allen’ [Woody Allen plays a caricature of Woody Allen]. I feel that this plotline could have perhaps been stretched into an entire film, rather than acting as a subplot.
Ultimately the film is lacking substantially in atmosphere and edge, and has too low dose of character to make it anything remarkable. As Rodger Jacobs’ world-weary protagonist states in Last Summer at the Marmont: When you think about a great movie, you don’t think about the plot. You think about the characters. Bogart and Bergman as Rick and Ilsa. Chuck Heston as Moses. Pacino as Michael Corleone. DeNiro as Jack La Mota. Do I need go on?
Sadly, Allen’s characters aren’t memorable in the slightest. While we are told at the beginning that these are a few of the thousands of stories that make up Rome, which is suspiciously reminiscent of The Naked City’s: ‘There are eight million stories in the Naked City’, the stories we are told are mostly anaemic, and lamentably Americanised. Of course it is not fair to judge a film compared to Allen’s older, more endearing ones, though as an avid Allen lover it is difficult not to feel the need to. I would prefer to see Allen return to New York and write up one of the eight million stories.