By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Woody Allen didn’t have an idea for a movie this year, but he made one anyway.
The 74-year-old filmmaker has turned out a picture a year (or close enough) since his feature debut in the mid-1960’s. “To Rome with Love” continues his European period. Previous settings have included London (“Match Point”) Barcelona (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”), and Paris (“Midnight in Paris”).
From the opening scene — an Italian traffic cop addressing the camera — the fit feels wrong. Rome isn’t Woody territory somehow. The city demands the robust surrealism of Fellini— his circus-freak chaos and fantastical appetites.
Woody, by comparison, seems almost too much the gentleman. Not that he can’t be outrageous; think of “Bananas” or “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex” (remember Gene Wilder and the sheep?) or his portion of “New York Stories” with the giant Jewish mother in the sky.
But he’s rarely bombastic and that, it seems, is what Rome demands. At least on some level.
“To Rome with Love” is divided among four main storylines. In one, Roberto Begnini is a work-a-day nobody suddenly caught in the insane and insatiable glare of the media. For no reason whatsoever, he’s mobbed when he leaves his apartment and his every comment is savored like the pronouncements of a sacred icon. What he had for breakfast goes viral before it goes through his digestive system.
It’s a funny idea, one that Allen has flirted with before in “Celebrity,” and this time, he adds Internet inanity to the mix. But it’s also a one-joke notion that neither he nor his star (who, I admit, bothers me beyond reason) can expand.
That’s pretty much the problem with all the film’s extended sketches; they ‘re all one-trick ponies. Alec Baldwin has a “Midnight in Paris”-like time trip, but not to anywhere especially interesting.
Rather, he seems to re-visit his own youth, advising Jesse Eisenberg (who just doesn’t work as a romantic lead, no matter how good he is) on how to run his love life. Should he be faithful to his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) or succumb to her seductive best pal (Ellen Page)?
The third story concerns two country-mice newlyweds, in Rome to meet his very high-powered family. Each embarks on an unexpected sexual adventure (his is with a… sigh… prostitute-with-a–heart-of-gold, diligently played by Penelope Cruz).
Allen himself appears (for the first time since 2006’s “Scoop”) as one-half of an American couple in Rome to meet their daughter’s fiancé and his family. A recently retired opera impresario, Allen can’t stop himself from trying to launch the career of his soon-to-be-son-in-law’s father, an unassuming undertaker who can only unleash his magnificent voice in the shower.
In a season overwhelmed by the likes of “Ted’’ and “That’s My Dad” and “Magic Mike,” I don’t enjoy not going to bat for Allen’s new film. Certainly, it’s better than most of what’s out there. But sometimes, you can’t help judging something within a certain context.
And Woody…. you should’ stayed in Paris.