To Rome With Love (2012)

21 04 2013

I’ve never been a particularly big fan of Woody Allen, but I’ve never really had a big problem watching his films. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to a young adult living in New York, Paris, or in this particular case, Rome? Personally, there’s a bit of wish fufillment in my enjoyment of his movies and perhaps it’s that slant that also prevents me from seeing most of his films as really artistic or resonating in my head after the film itself ends. To Rome With Love might be the worst offender, but it’s Allen at his most transparent: he’s never been more self-conscious. In a weird twist, his biggest problems being magnified have produced his most interesting movie in years. I hesitate to call it great, hell to even call it “good” but it’s not a film I regret watching in the least.


Middle-aged and married, John returns to Rome with intentions of revisiting where he once lived. There, he meets Jack, an American student living with his girlfriend, Sally. Her best friend, Monica, moves in with the couple, which throws their relationship into question. John continually confronts Jack about his potential feelings for Monica, but Jack manages to brush them aside. Meanwhile, Hayley’s parents come in from New York to meet her fiance. Meanwhile, a middle aged businessman becomes celebrity apropos of nothing and a rural couple loses each other in the big city, each getting involved in another romantic situation.


I try to be vague in a lot of these plot descriptions, but here, I saw myself particularly trying to recount the vignette involving John and Jack. In a way, it seems to be a slight retread of Allen’s Midnight in Paris as John (played by Alec Baldwin) seems to be reliving his youth through Jack. It could be deduced that John is something of a ghost, as he converses with Jack about a scene’s subtext as the scene itself is unfolding. These scenes can be uncomfortable in their smug nature, but I can’t help but believe that is intention entirely. After all, is there a better word than smug to describe Baldwin as a performer? As Jack and Monica slowly develop their affections, he is always there to scrutinize her behavior. One wonders why only Monica is given this treatment, but this might be more indicative of Allen’s problematic women characters, more so than the usual superficial criticism that he just lives out a fantasy with his films.


The film is still very much a fantasy, perhaps Allen himself coming to terms with his age in a way that is the antithesis to that of his hero, Ingmar Bergman. The film even acknowledges this idea, as Allen’s wife in the film does little more than provide a psychoanalytic reading of her husband’s actions. This all might seem too meta, since Allen is either removing the interpretative power of the viewer or he’s just adding another layer of self-consciousness.  I have often felt that his films seem to be made with a fear of criticism, as if he anticipates common criticisms and then teases those ideas with the hope that the audience might feel guilty about arriving at such a thought. This is certainly how I’ve digested a great deal of Allen’s work, but it seems to be less of the case here. Perhaps the breezy tone to this film’s proceedings make it seem less obnoxious in its occasional intellectual posturing.


I find it funny that the most frequent problem I have with Allen (especially his comedies) is a sentiment echoed by himself. Be it the Fellini conversation in Annie Hall or this bit in Manhattan, there is also a character in Allen’s films that attempts to sound more intelligent that they actually are. Ellen Page’s Monica character is given this negative characteristic here, and it’s this trait that Baldwin’s John constantly tries to point out to Jack. Almost halfway through the film, Monica and Jack have an exchange about architecture, she brings up Gaudi and speaks about him in a fairly stilted way. John tells Jack this, “she knows certain cultural phrases that imply she knows more than she does.” To me, this hits fairly close to my own problems with Allen. It’s more that he feels compelled to demonstrate his knowledge (and do so through with conversation) than that I think he’s actually a fake smart person. Still, this moment implies an awareness. Sure, it’s been in his earlier films, but it feels oddly poignant here.


This isn’t to say the film is perfect, or even particularly good. The two non-English segments seem particularly hollow, perhaps just Allen indulging in the perceived “exotic” nature of Italy. The Roberto Benigni story has a nice surrealist touch to it, but it ultimately becomes a boring criticism of celebrity culture. In such a situation, it’s hard to see Allen as anything more than a Dad complaining about an issue of Us! Weekly. The other one is a serviceable comedic bit that is charming. The real appeal for me is when Allen confronts his demons, not because he’s particularly articulate or pointed about them but more than he presents them in an entertaining fashion. This isn’t a great film, but Allen has something a little bit personal here and he manages to proceed with it in a “charming” way. This is a film that goes down easy, and it actually does have something to say. It’s not the most substantial film, but it’s nice. Sometimes you just want something nice.