Having directed about a movie per year since the late sixties/early seventies, the quality of Woody Allen's films waver. Sometimes he'll have a string of successes or perhaps a few flops and a hit. Such is that of a career in film lasting over forty years with about just as many films. I've mentioned this before and perhaps it's just my tastes, but Allen seems to be on a "every three films is another triumph". I say that more so critically speaking as audience members and cinephiles do respond to some of his more less notable works. That being said, I liked Match Point (2005) and disliked to varying degrees Scoop (2006) and Cassandra's Dream (2007). I liked Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and disliked to varying degrees Whatever Works (2009) and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010). I liked Midnight in Paris (2011)... so already I was superstitiously worried that To Rome with Love wouldn't hold up. It's a mixed bag.
The film, inspired by the 14th century Italian literature The Decameron, includes several tales of love set in the city of Rome. A lovely European city with comedy and romance and therefore, a classic Woody Allen set up. As hinted at above, not every story is the best. Of the four- I disliked one, thought two were so-so, and liked one.
The one that I liked followed Jerry and Phyllis (Woody and Judy Davis- both whom I haven't seen in a film since 2006), a couple who go to Rome to visit their newly engaged daughter Hayley (Alison Pill). Upon meeting the Italian inlaws, Jerry reliezes that the patriarch of the family has an amazing voice, but only when he sings in the shower. Jerry plans to showcase the tenor, but his in-laws don't wish for fame and fortune. These segements called back to the some of the absurdity that Allen's earlier humor had (Bananas and Sleeper come to mind) and would later be sprinkled sporadically over the rest of his slate. Sometimes I used to have trouble with Allen's acting as I found that his surrogates such as Owen Wilson or Larry David (recent examples) had a much more nuanced balance to reigning in the neurosis. With age, Allen seems to have a better handle on that aspect of his primary characters with his own acting chops, making his performance in this film a welcome (re-)surprise.
The two tales that left a mediocre impression included a case of mistaken identity starring Penelope Cruz as a hooker and another more fantasy-based story about a man (Roberto Benigni) who is suddenly an overnight celebrity and his mundane life is documented with an outrageous amount of press. The jokes in these cases get tired pretty fast, but the performances by Benigni, Alessandro Tiberian, and Alessandra Mastronardi are inspired and humorous to say the least.
The fourth vignette is about Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sally (Greta Gerwig), two Americans living in Rome who are visited by Sally's friend Monica (Ellen Page). Jack falls for Monica and my issue with this comes down to Page's portrayal. I don't buy her as a seductress perhaps because of the nature of Allen's script in comparison to her acting style. Alec Baldwin plays a real-life apparition that guides Jack (see the movie to make more sense of that) and that also falls flat quickly.
The film, like many of Allen's work set in exotic locales, feels like a plesant stroll more than anything else (no pun intended). Perhaps after his next film, I'll see an Allen production that I'd go on to rank alongside his best.