Wednesday, August 1, 2012

... While Rome Burns

Last year, acclaimed director Woody Allen released his most successful and arguably best film in years in Midnight in Paris. The romantic comedy, which saw Owen Wilson's young artist travel back in time to what he considered the best creative moments of the city he loved, was an astounding piece of film making. I didn't think it was one of the BEST movies that came out last year, but it IS one of the few from 2011 that I saw twice in the theater, and it won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, while Allen and his movie were respectively nominated for Best Director and Best Picture. Midnight in Paris was simply beautiful, and there was no doubt that the next step by Allen would either barely live up to that high standard, or fail miserably in comparison.

Somehow, To Rome with Love manages to evade being totally eclipsed by its predecessor, but naturally it cannot stand up to the wonder that was Midnight. The story takes place in four vignettes, depicting both residents and visitors to Rome and their stories. In one, Jerry (Allen, in his first acting role since 2006's Scoop) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) visit their daughter (Alison Pill) and her fiance Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Jerry, a retired classical music composer, discovers that Michelangelo's blue collar father (Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato) has a natural operatic voice, and wants to help the mortician become famous. In the second, newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are in the city for the first time, where Antonio is hoping to impress his successful family and get a job in the family business. But Milly gets lost in Rome and Antonio must try to pass off a prostitute who mistakenly showed up at his room (Penelope Cruz) as Milly. In the third, John (Alec Baldwin) is revisiting the city he lived in when he was younger. He runs into aspiring architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives with his student girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). Sally's best friend and aspiring actress Monica (Ellen Page) arrives to stay with her friend for a while, and tries to seduce Jack along the way. Finally, Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) is a desk-bound clerk whose life is turned upside down one day as he (for reasons unknown) becomes an overnight celebrity.

Yes, he's back and looking better than ever.
While To Rome with Love contains some of the more fantastical elements of Midnight in Paris, and is of course told in Allen's signature voice, but that's precisely where any comparisons come to an end. Rome is Allen's third movie in five years (the first two being Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight) that focuses on a famous and beautiful European city. Unlike those films, Allen only sporadically captures the essence of the city in question here. While every shot in Midnight in Paris and many in Barcelona evoked wonder and awe purely in the visuals, there is little of that ability shown in Rome. Sure, Allen manages to get some lovely shots of the city through his lens, but compared to the constant "Wow" factor that he had accomplished previously, what we see is somewhat disappointing.

Alec's still got "it".
There are also major hiccups with the stories themselves, a shocker considering how much thought Allen usually puts into his written work. Both the newlywed and celebrity vignettes pale in comparison to their contemporaries. Benigni's piece, in particular, feels totally out of place, simultaneously railing against an establishment of unearned celebrity while acknowledging that, still, it feels good to be recognized. Despite Benigni's great work, the theme smacks a bit too forcefully, and the piece feels unfinished and unpolished. Cruz also is the best part of her vignette, as both Antonio and Milly are too stupid and uninteresting to fully get behind. Meanwhile, showing everyone how it is done, Cruz blows everyone she interacts with out of the water, a force of nature that I wish had been granted a better tale. While the other vignettes are not perfect, they do have plenty more to interest the viewer, from Armiliato's rise as an opera star to Jack and Monica's flirtations to just about everything Alec Baldwin. Allen's dialogue is at times razor sharp, reminding you why he has remained so popular for his entire career.

Say it with me now: "Rawr."
Sadly, these few positives are not enough to make for a great movie. The film feels rushed at points, and not just due to the filming pace. Allen's themes of celebrity and infidelity are nothing new, and in fact are simply rehashed from his previous works. While there are plenty of laughs, they are unevenly dispersed among the ensemble, with some character getting next to nothing for their efforts. Allen also seems to have set a record for characters based on aspects of himself (five, including Allen), and while he manages to create some unique female characters, his inability to make a man that is not himself stands out. And the acting itself is not much better, with only Baldwin, Benigni, Cruz and the surprising Armiliato doing better than their scripts would dictate. Allen himself stammers his dialogue even more than usual, making you wonder which of his takes did NOT make the final cut. And his was still one of the less dry performances in the entire film. All this speaks to lazy writing, and drop Rome from the underrated piece it could have been to the undeserving theatrical release it has become.

This is literally the best the film has to offer... and it's damned good.
This really can't be surprising. Woody Allen hasn't hidden the fact that he hates the film's title, which he only settled on because previous names Bop Decameron and Nero Fiddles were deemed too confusing by many people. How can we be expected to like a film when it's creator is not happy with an aspect of it? Still, there is a bit to appreciate about To Rome with Love, but if we're being honest with ourselves then it's just more burden than it's worth. This is a title that has certainly benefited from the weak summer schedule, and as a result it may get more attention than it really deserves come award season. If you REALLY can't wait to get your Woody fix, then you're going to go see this no matter what I say. But if that's the case then you already OWN this movie. It's already on your DVD shelf, if under a different title. You'd be better off re-watching the superior Midnight in Paris than seeing this new film on the big screen, so only die-hard Allen fans need apply.

"What do you mean, 'I'm the weakest link?'"

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