Even if he doesn’t always knock it out of the park the appearance of a new Woody Allen film is always something to take notice of. There’s something comforting about seeing that familiar elegant font appearing at the beginning of every film, a contenting reminder to fans of his work of where they stand.
No matter what he did Allen’s next film was always going to be compared to his previous critical darling Midnight In Paris (also his most financially successful film to date), not least because he has decided to stay abroad in sunny cultural Europe to explore his chosen themes using a cast of familiar faces.
It’s true that when compared to Midnight in Paris, still a magical and utterly enchanting film which stands as his best in decades, To Rome With Love pales. It features too much reliance on happenstance, slapstick and gags drawn out far too long, and falters under the weight of too many characters vying for their chance to shine, clunkily moving from one to the other with no real thread to tie it all together.
In essence it’s an anthology film in disguise and as such some of the separate, occasionally intertwining stories work more than others. Jesse Eisenberg’s young architect living in Rome and falling for his girlfriend’s extroverted friend (a verging on the annoying Ellen Page) is in turns uncomfortable and truthful. While Woody Allen himself playing a retired music aficionado who finds what he believes to be a new star in his soon-to-be son in law’s unknowing father is the film at its most effectively comical. On the other hand the tale of Roberto Benigni’s everyman thrown into the world of being “famous for being famous” is preachy and obvious, and the story of Penelope Cruz’s brazen escort sauntering into the lives of a young Italian couple separated by their naivety feels trite.
There’s still plenty to enjoy in chunks, once again down to Allen’s inimitable insights about love and his evident fascination with locations and a way of life very different to his own upbringing. It’s also, for the most part, very well cast and acted, Allen himself being a much welcome presence (not as sharp as he used to be but still giving it a good go) and the likes of Eisenberg, Alison Pill and Greta Gerwig bringing a great likeability to the proceedings. Only Alec Baldwin, as a strange sort of overseer/narrator who seems to pop in with advice and observations at different points, sticks out as a “why is he even there?” member of the cast.
As flawed as it is there’s still something very good-natured and enjoyable about To Rome With Love. It’s ultimately a mixed bag, working beautifully in places while feeling heavy-handed and clunky in others. Certainly no classic of Allen’s stunningly prolific career but nonetheless, after Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, a perfectly amiable stop on his cinematic tour around Europe.
To Rome With Love is released in UK cinemas on September 14th.