Review: ‘To Rome With Love’ is Woody Allen on automatic pilot

“To Rome With Love” is the 11,000th motion picture by writer/director Woody Allen, and he deserves congratulations for the sheer volume of work he’s produced, if nothing else.

Perhaps I exaggerate slightly, but I do find myself often pleased by the mere existence of a new Allen film because of the place it occupies in the natural order of things.  A new Allen film every year.  That’s federal law at this point, right?  And when people talk about what distinguishes Allen’s work, you’ll hear them talking about dialogue rhythms or the font he uses for his titles or his soundtracks, but those are mere gravy on the actual meat of what it is he does, and I think he’s fascinating for the way he basically found his own approach to storytelling and he’s worked variations in that same form ever since.

He’s taken steps away from his main approach a few times, but he always eventually finds his way back, and it’s been true from the jokes he wrote as a stand-up to the short pieces he collected in books like “Without Feathers” and continued directly into his filmmaking career, one of the richest and most fully explored of any American director, now or in the past.  Woody Allen worships at the altar of the high concept.  He loves to imagine a mundane world where one crucial detail is tweaked to comic effect.  Sometimes, those high concepts are super high concept, like “The Purple Rose Of Cairo” or “Midnight In Paris” or “Zelig.” 

Last week, I watched “New York Stories” for the first time since 1989, and his segment in that film, “Oedipus Wrecks,” is a perfect example of the way Allen’s mind most naturally works.  He takes something as universal and simple as a difficult relationship between Mother and Son and then adds the notion of the overbearing smothering Mother growing to hundreds of feet high and existing in the sky above New York, exaggerated to the largest possible effect.  It allows him to dig into the meat of something because he’s made it ridiculous.  He can do almost anything in his films once he makes a jump like that.  In fact, I think it’s fair to say that Woody Allen is comedy’s Rod Serling in the way he uses a fantastic premise to tell an observational human or social story.

In “To Rome With Love,” which is just a series of stories, not directly connected, and Allen’s doing these one-idea sort of doodles, very much like his short fiction.  I think the most interesting idea is the one about the 50-something professional, visiting Rome on a holiday with his younger wife, who tells her that he’d like to go take a walk by himself through the neighborhoods where he lived for a time during school.  It’s a melancholy stroll, as he sees what’s the same, what’s changed.  He stops at a bench, thinking… and his younger self walks by.  Stops.  They chat.  And then his younger self takes him on a stroll back into the past.  He realizes he’s at a moment where he’s dating one girl (Greta Gerwig) but meets a new girl (Ellen Page) and has a crisis, a sexual meltdown of sorts.  As the older version, Alec Baldwin, watches the younger version, Jesse Eiseneberg, go through the early stages of this fumbling slow-motion disaster, warning him what’s going to happen.  He tries to dissuade him, but, as Allen once famously said in another film, “The heart wants what the heart wants.”  So all he can do is watch it again, making wry comment about what’s happening.  It’s a nice piece about the way perspective allows us to see our own mistakes more clearly without giving us any way to change them, and it’s nicely performed across the board.

The most absurd of the stories has to do with a young American woman named Hayley (Alison Pill) who meets and falls in love with an Italian boy named Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti).  When her parents, played by Woody Allen and Judy Davis, come to Italy to meet her parents, played by Fabio Armiliato and Monica Nappo, it kicks off a very strange professional collaboration. Turns out his father is a gifted natural tenor, but only when he sings in the shower, leading her father to stage a production of “Pagliacci” in which a shower stall is wheeled out onto the stage to allow him to stand in the shower and sing.  There’s also a segment where a perfectly average Italian family man named Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) suddenly finds himself under the full scrutiny of the paparazzi for no reason he can discern, which is as slight as that idea sounds.  The final segment is about a young couple who come to Rome on a business trip, only to get separated before his big business dinner, forcing him to ask a Roman prostitute (Penelope Cruz in a dress that deserves an award of some sort) to pose as his wife for dinner.

That is the ultimate weakness of “To Rome With Love.”  These are such simple ideas, such one-note jokes, that as soon as the idea is fully established, you’ve got the whole thing.  Allen doesn’t really have any twists to play or any surprises to reveal.  The film is painless, and it looks and feels exactly like a Woody Allen film.  But considering the way he managed to expand his regular audience last year with “Midnight In Paris,” people may show up to this one expecting more than they’ll get, only to be reminded that Allen is always Allen.  That’s not a slam, and it’s not exactly an endorsement, either.  I like that at this point, Woody Allen has become so comfortable with what he does that his films feel inevitable.  I can’t imagine a cinema landscape without that annual dose of his sensibilities, and while “To Rome With Love” is undeniably a minor key effort from Allen, there is something comforting about the place he holds in the filmmaking firmament.

“To Rome With Love” opens June 22, 2012 in limited release.