By Christine EstimaDirector Woody Allen has perfected the art of banging out a new film every year. Yet, considering his canon, and that pace, it's hard to imagine what new ideas he could possibly have rattling around in his head.
Continuing his filmic adoration of Europe, To Rome With Love also marks his return in front of the camera. Yet while he's never dull as a performer, or short on vision as a director, the script for To Rome With Love feels a great deal like Laurel and Hardy, if Laurel and Hardy had been fed a diet of Samuel Beckett and How I Met Your Mother.
To Rome With Love features an all-star ensemble cast portraying characters searching for importance, yet still finding life rather unsatisfying. Allen plays a retired librettist who thinks he's discovered the next Pavarotti. Jesse Eisenberg plays a young architect falling for the con-artist charms of Ellen Page, much to the suspicion of his wife, Greta Gerwig, and the curmudgeonly chagrin of mentor Alec Baldwin. Alessandro Tiberi is a small-town newlywed who must pretend prostitute Penelope Cruz is his bride in front of his conservative relatives. And Roberto Benigni plays the Kim Kardashian of the story, who becomes famous for no reason.
Set against the backdrop of a balmy summer at the Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum and the Spanish Steps, this urban fairy tale attempts to be a lurid brouhaha in a baroque extravaganza of charms, manners and absurdity. But good luck trying to revel in each manipulated plot device or neurotic, self-involved character.
There are a few clap-happy moments: Allen's operatic ingénue performs in Pagliacci, in a makeshift shower stall, loofahing his body during the high notes; Benigni drops his pants in the middle of the street after his infamy wanes; and Penelope Cruz, well, she steals every scene she's in.
But what is truly troubling here is how Allen writes women. Alessandra Mastronardi plays Tiberi's doting bride, yet she has no problem cheating on him not once, but twice in a mere 24 hours. Page is a conniving actress who purposefully seduces her best friend's husband. Best friend Gerwig plays the ignoramus and fool throughout.
Women bed-hop with the suddenly famous Benigni as if they were changing a brand of cereal. And Cruz, who has of course slept with every man at a garden party, coerces Tiberi under the guise of showing him "a trick or two," but it lands on the wrong side of consent. Is this supposed to be a comedic lampoon of Italian love triangles or is Allen still working out his women issues, post-Mia Farrow?
Performances by Benigni and Baldwin are particularly pitch-perfect, but these don't outshine the fact that Woody Allen is flippin' the bird to all of Hollywood by creating such a hot mess and getting away with it. Usually when I'm this unmoved it's easy to move on. However, in the case of To Rome With Love, just as in Waiting For Godot, no one moves. (Sony)