The big question that seems to plague Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love is whether or not it’s as good as last year’s Midnight in Paris. The answer — if you go by critical consensus — is no, but I’m skeptical of judging movies based on review aggregators these days. I’m even more skeptical when we’re dealing with a filmmaker coming off a hugely successful film (tearing down last year’s hit-maker is a favorite pastime)—and if the filmmaker is Woody Allen, you can double my skepticism. My own take is that the two films aren’t really comparable, but if we must weigh one against the other, I’d say that what To Rome with Love lacks in viewer-friendliness, it more than makes up in ambition — and that ambition pays off more often than not. And if you get right down to it, this might have more solid laughs than its much praised predecessor.
Allen gives us four separate stories that take place in Rome. What makes this unusual is that the stories are intercut, but not interconnected. Apart from taking place in Rome—the stories are supposedly being told by a traffic cop — the stories have nothing to do with each other, nor are the time-frames related. Now, that probably sounds awkward, but if you simply go with it, it’s not. In fact, I was surprised by how smoothly it cut together and how the shift from one story to the next and back again always felt right. In a similar vein, the film’s occasional leaps into fantasy struck me as perfectly judged without being calculated, making the whole thing feel more intuitive than consciously clever.
The four stories commence when Hayley (Alison Pill—Zelda Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris) gets directions — and more — from handsome Italian Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Soon she’s engaged to him, with her parents, Jerry (Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) flying to Rome to meet their prospective son-in-law and his family. In another story, middle-aged architect, John (Alec Baldwin), wanders off in search of where he spent his youth and finds young architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) who lives with his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig). The third story involves a pair of newlyweds, Antonio (Allesandro Tiberian) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronadi), who’ve come to Rome on their honeymoon with the hopes that Antonio will be able to move up in the world with a new job. The final story is a Felliniesque comic nightmare about a boring middle-class schnook (Roberto Benigni) who inexplicably becomes famous for no apparent reason and finds his life turned upside down.
As the film plays out, each story finds its own set of complications. Jerry, an unwillingly retired producer of avant-garde opera, thinks he’s found a great new talent in his daughter’s soon-to-be father-in-law (Fabio Armiliato), only to discover that the man can only sing in the shower (which, however, is not an insurmountable obstacle to a man who once staged an opera with all the characters dressed as white mice). Jack and Sally find their domestic bliss upset by the arrival of Sally’s best friend, Monica (Ellen Page), to whom Jack — despite apparent magical counseling from John — becomes unwisely attracted. The newlyweds become separated and Antonio becomes mixed up with a hooker (Penélope Cruz), who ends up having to pose as his wife, while Milly gets involved with a famous actor. All the while, the Benigni character only wants his boring life back — or does he?
Most of it works and on the occasions where it doesn’t quite, it soon rights itself. The biggest surprise here is that it takes a couple of scenes before Allen seems to settle comfortably into his character, but once he does, he’s completely on his game. Perhaps the most engaging character, though, is Baldwin’s John, who may or may not be real—and who may or may not, for that matter, be an older version of Jack. It’s all fast on its feet with smart, funny dialogue and effortless elegance. It’s one of the most engaging films of the year. Rated R for some sexual references.