Woody Allen films require an acquired taste. As such, they must almost be reviewed by separate standards. Fans of Allen’s films will find in To Rome with Love similar content as in his other recent films, like Whatever Works and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, where themes focused heavily on relationships. Compared to non-Allen films, the absurd and disjointed stories in To Rome with Love probably won’t lure any Allen skeptics over into the fan base.
A handful of stories take place at the same time in To Rome with Love. Music promoter Jerry and his wife Phyllis (Woody Allen and Judy Davis) are flying to Italy to meet their daughter Hayley and her fiancé Michelangelo (Alison Pill and Favio Parenti). Michelangelo’s father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) has an amazing singing voice that Jerry would love to promote, but unfortunately, Giancarlo only seems to sing well in the shower. Meanwhile, famous architect John (Alec Baldwin) visits his old haunts and meets a seemingly younger version of himself in Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who is tempted to leave his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) for her actress friend Monica (Ellen Page). While that happens, boring and mild-mannered Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) suddenly finds himself famous and hounded by media, forcing him to cope with newfound celebrity. Finally, newlyweds Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) find themselves in odd romantic circumstances as they get separated in Rome and become entangled with a prostitute named Anna (Penélope Cruz) and a famous actor named Luca (Antonio Albanese).
Each separate story offers an interesting and sometimes cute vignette that are conceptually entertaining, especially when they take turns toward the absurd. Leopoldo finding himself famous for no good reason is disconcerting at first, but then becomes quite humorous when compared to real life examples of fake celebrities. Likewise, John and Jack’s story quickly becomes surreal with John sometimes appearing out of nowhere to give Jack advice on his love life. Finally, the punchline in Jerry’s story with the shower-singing Giancarlo is truly funny in its presentation, even if it’s telegraphed a bit.
Compared to traditional films, the biggest issue with To Rome with Love is that there is too little screentime for each story to really develop them beyond the one note that they offer. Knowing this limitation, the individual short stories somehow seem too long as their plots become either easily predictable or simply flat. This is especially true in Jerry’s story as the resolution to his dilemma seems obvious while the payoff is drawn out. Similarly, everything that happens in Leopoldo’s story is simply for illustrative purposes, like in a parable, to hammer a message into audiences’ brains rather than to develop some kind cathartic story. Nevertheless, these aspects all feel Allen-esque, and it’s doubtful that fans of his work will be disappointed.
Criticism of the performances stems from the same issue that the stories suffer from – lack of screentime and development. It’s difficult to point out who is actually playing a character and who is simply reciting lines. Many times, the actors seem at a loss on how a person would behave in their unnatural situations, so they simply play their roles straight. It may serve Allen’s presentation style, but it isn’t very satisfying.
Ultimately, the four stories in To Rome with Love would have been better served by being separated into their own feature-length films. Each story offers fertile territory for character and theme exploration. How wonderful would it be to see just how much John’s past shaped his future? Or to truly live Leopoldo’s whirlwind rise to fame? Separating the stories makes even more sense when one realizes that at no time do any of the stories or characters intersect with another. Regrettably, Allen crams the stories together here, which isn’t wholly dissatisfying, but it falls short of what could have been.