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To Rome with Love

Woody Allen’s love letter to the city of Rome could use some editing

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Ellen page and jesse eisenberg star as inexplicably doomed lovers in To Rome with Love.

To Rome with Love

Directed by Woody Allen

Opens at the Charles Theatre July 6

Just recently, we talked with some friends about how director Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic, Rushmore) made his best work when paired with former writing partner Owen Wilson, who—according to Anderson—would rein in the director with large Xs over parts of the script he didn’t like. Now that Anderson carries a ton of clout, he can pretty much do whatever he damn well pleases, largely free of Wilson’s influence. The results, though, are often stylistically-bloated behemoths (though we must admit that Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom, is one of his best post-Royal Tenenbaums projects), proving that restrictions can often bring out the best in an artist. The same could be said for Woody Allen’s latest venture, which would have benefitted from a series of large Xs here and there. To Rome with Love suffers from the luxury of having everything it could ever desire—an ensemble cast of stars, gorgeous locations, a smattering of in-vogue young actors—but it just doesn’t add up to much of anything.

Introduced by a bumbling traffic cop (Pierluigi Marchionne), a group of unrelated people—some Italian, some American—share their time on-screen; their stories never intersect, and the only thing they all have in common is the location: Rome. There’s John (Alec Baldwin), a famous architect who miraculously travels back in time to chastise his younger self (known as “Jack,” played by Jesse Eisenberg) for his romantic blunders. Then there’s Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), a middle-class Italian who finds himself, inexplicably, hugely famous. Allen himself plays Jerry, a retired opera director who decides to rekindle his career after hearing the rich, booming tones of Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), an undertaker with a natural knack for singing—but only in the shower. A number of other characters surface, their stories swallowed up by the sprawl of the film.

Embracing the sense of fantasy that worked so well in Midnight in Paris, his last film, Allen develops a similar time-travel story line for John, who traipses into his past to squelch a budding romance between Jack and his girlfriend’s best friend Monica (Ellen Page). Unfortunately, unlike Midnight in Paris, the whimsy fizzles out this time around, and the result is just preposterous. John drops into the life of his younger self at will, sometimes engaging in arguments with himself or his old flame, sometimes seemingly invisible. Despite the vaguely supernatural element of the story, most of it is dull, inhabited by bland characters with unidentifiable motivations. Considering John’s successful career and presumably happy marriage, one has to wonder what compels him to so doggedly revisit the past.

Greta Gerwig, who plays the other half of Jack’s tepid relationship, pops in here and there, passively frowning or fretting over the attraction between her boyfriend and her best friend. But even Gerwig’s talent can’t infuse any clear motives into her character; at one moment, she agonizes about Monica’s power over men, then she demands Jack keep her company in the next.

One saving grace of the film, though, is Benigni’s thread, which manages to be ridiculous yet feasible in the world of the story. When Leopoldo awakes one morning to find himself bombarded by paparazzi, he awkwardly stumbles through his day, confused when pushed before a news camera to tell audiences what he ate for breakfast. Benigni skillfully crafts Leopoldo as a bubbling concoction who is understandably flabbergasted, frustrated, and delighted with this recent turn of events, resulting in some of the most genuinely funny parts of the film. These segments harken back to Allen’s glory days of comedy (think Love and Death levels of absurdity), but just before audiences really get a chance to enjoy themselves, they’re whisked away to another plot that’s far more lifeless. For a film that bounces around so much, To Rome with Love, for the most part, feels wooden and stale.

Allen’s latest endeavor would benefit from a good deal of scaling back. Though it bears similarities to last year’s Midnight in Paris, it lacks a solid structure to keep all of its elements in check. If a little more time could have been parsed out to just a couple specific branches of the film, there would have been more opportunities for character development and laughs. Instead, the film crumbles, unable to carry its own weight.

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