Monday, August 6, 2012

To Rome with Love

Alternate Title:  The Sack of Rome, Part 2

One sentence synopsis:     A number of Italians and Americans have strange experiences in the Eternal City.

Things Havoc liked:  Rome is one of my favorite cities in the world. I love the history of Rome, the atmosphere of Rome, the food of Rome, the art of Rome, the ambiance of Rome, I love everything about Rome (at least at a remove). And given that Woody Allen has recently decided that his life's goal is to chronicle all the great cities of Europe in film (Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris), I was glad to hear that he'd gotten around to Rome. So what if the plot was an artificial cobbling together of a number of unrelated vignettes? So what if it's all a transparent excuse to get a bunch of A-list actors together and film a lighthearted romantic farce in the Eternal City? Midnight in Paris had no greater excuse for existing, and was wonderful. I entered this movie hopeful, expecting a lighthearted love letter to a city I also admire, as directed and written by one of the most acclaimed American filmmakers of this or any age.

Things Havoc disliked:   Suffice to say, that is not what I received.

Woody Allen is an acquired taste that some people never acquire. His nebbish personality and stilted, stream-of-consciousness dialogue style are hard to take for an extended period of time, and there are some who simply dislike it, though I never counted myself one. Yes, his style is somewhat repetitive, but I've always rather enjoyed his offerings, even when they're not great cinema, and I thought it rather unfair to object to his usual in-character personality, especially when he's often portrayed precisely as the stammering, whining idiot that he seems to be.

Well goddamn, I sure get it now.

To Rome with Love is structured into a series of unrelated vignettes, chronicling the misadventures of a series of American and Italian tourists (and Roman natives) within the Eternal City. The best that can be said for this structure is that we aren't forced to put up with any particular set of fantastically annoying characters for too long, but as the alternative is only another set of equally annoying ones, that's perhaps not saying much. Worst of the bunch (by far) is Woody himself, playing a retired opera director who arrives in Rome to meet his daughter's fiance. Bereft of the superb timing and oddball detachment that previously made his characters bearable, Woody here plays the sort of character who in a better movie would be shot and thrown in the Tiber to drown. A particular scene midway through the film, where he simply refuses to shut up about some show he wants to put together with his son-in-law's father is so teeth-grinding and awkward that I was literally counting the seconds before the film finally, mercifully cut away (17). Had it gone to 20, I might have set the screen on fire.  When he's not being as annoying as humanly possible, he's casually throwing in constant references to his own psychoanalysis and film theory.  Par for the course for an Allen film, yes, but these references are so pointless and shoehorned-in that they just serve to make the people speaking them look stupider.

But bad as Woody is, the real tragedy is what he has done to all the other actors in this movie. One sequence involves Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page as two young students who fall in love in Rome, while Alec Baldwin plays a sort of Jiminy-Cricket-like adviser, warning Eisenberg against the pitfalls of his budding romance. All three of these people are excellent actors whom I enjoy watching, and all three of them are godawful in this movie, primarily because the dialogue they are given is so wooden and on-the-nose that Lawrence Olivier could not have performed it credibly. This is the sort of film wherein a character, wishing to express how they are falling in love with someone in an unexpected and even unwelcome manner, will express this by turning to someone else and saying, out loud, "I am falling in love with someone in an unexpected and even unwelcome manner". Eisenberg is forced to narrate his own feelings at such nauseating length that he winds up sounding like a complete prat, while Page is grotesquely miscast as a "sexpot" who recites a list of cliched "free-spirited" backstory points with all the verisimilitude of a drunk at a party bragging about his 'game'. I loved Page in Juno and Inception, but this performance is so bad I'm not sure I can even blame Allen for it. And none of this is helped by Alec Baldwin floating through the movie and pointing out, explicitly, how stupid every line Page recites is.

The other two vignettes are in Italian, which normally would serve to dampen the awkwardness of the dialogue (subtitles have that effect), but here does not, simply because the plots are so stupid that there's no salvaging them. Roberto Benigni's story involves him being spontaneously treated as a celebrity, a premise which begins well enough, but ends with Benigni acting like an spastic idiot and learning a stupid, unforgivably saccharine lesson about the nature of fame. The other story, the only one even vaguely tolerable, stars Penelope Cruz as a prostitute mistaken for the new wife of a nervous man from rural Italy. I say 'vaguely' tolerable because even though the dialogue is less awful this time, this only allows the audience to turn its attention to the terrible pacing of the sequence, as the entire movie grinds to a halt every time Allen checks his watch and decides that it's probably time for someone to be "funny" again.

And yet, reciting story by story what's wrong with this film doesn't tell the tale, as the fundamental problems with this film are so elemental that it's almost shocking. Five or six times throughout the film, characters stop and remark to one another things like "Isn't this a great place we're standing in, in full view of the Spanish Steps?" all without showing us the Spanish Steps in question.  Every single vignette is intended to be viewed (I think) as farce, yet the movie's total inability to tell a joke without weighting it down means the farce is never allowed to take off. We see things like a man singing opera while standing in a portable shower (don't ask), but as the movie has no faith in our ability to perceive humor, we then are treated to the equivalent of ten minutes of characters telling each other about the fact that there's a man in a portable shower singing opera, belaboring the point until it's been mutilated past any point of humor. This happens for every single joke in the film.

Final thoughts: To Rome With Love is one of those movies that you leave in a daze, stunned by the sheer scale of the ineptitude you have just witnessed. I have seen bad movies before, even bad movies from otherwise talented filmmakers, but never a catastrophe so baffling as this one. Given that Woody Allen made the borderline-amazing Midnight in Paris only last year, a movie which was effectively a clone of this one (neurotic American goes to European city for crazy vignettes with local color), I have absolutely no explanation for what could possibly have happened here. I thought originally to claim that Allen had somehow been reduced to ripping himself off, but I find now that even that explanation doesn't suffice. This movie plays like a parody of a Woody Allen film, a parody lacking entirely in wit, substance, charm, or even basic filmmaking skill, made by someone who hates Woody Allen and wishes for him to suffer. How Allen, one of the most revered American filmmakers of the last fifty years, contrived to put something this terrible together and pass it off as a real movie is entirely beyond me, but this film was so bad that it caused my mother to swear off Allen's movies forever. I find it hard to blame her.

Ultimately, I'm left with the response I received from another woman who saw this film at the same time we did, and whose opinion I solicited as we were all making our way out of the theater. "This movie," she told me, "was the worst piece of shit I have ever seen."

Final Score:  2/10

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