Woody Allen’s newest picture, To Rome With Love, contains plenty of the bread and butter ticks: witty complaining (courtesy of Allen’s own character, Jerry), Freudian line-dropping (see Jerry’s psychiatrist wife, played by Judy Davis), and any other kind of bullshit line-dropping (Ellen Page’s character takes care of those cringe-worthy nuggets). But it also seemed to offer what’s marked most of his Continental films as of late—a pleasantly low-stakes plot.
Less at play are the Crimes and Misdemeanors/Match Point moral meditations or the tight farcical narratives of Sleeper and Small Time Crooks. These recent films—Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris—exist as much as vehicles for delightfully self-indulgent dialogue and gawking at European cities (Gaudí! Mansard roofs! The Coliseum is still standing!) as they do for traditionally enticing three-act stories. Which is all to say, I’m ready to eat this shit up, especially when every other movie this summer appears to have an explosion (or implosion) or a chase scene at every ten-minute beat.
Even amid the hype surrounding Pixar’s new feminist princess film Brave are murmurs that the studio overdid it on the frenetic tension in order to draw in otherwise uninterested ten-year-old boys. At least for the two-minute trailer, there’s really no break between climbing things, racing somewhere on horseback, or someone getting smacked with an axe. But I think it’s less a marketing ploy and more just the exercise of your standard Robert McKee screenwriting dogma—conflict, conflict, conflict!
Judd Apatow, from time to time, seems to get labeled a successful maker of “dudes hanging out” movies. But the recent media storm around Girls has seen plenty of mention of Apatow’s mastery at emotional tension when it comes to screenwriting. Lena Dunham, who certainly has Woody Allen at the tip of her pencil the whole way, might have had a less impactful show had she kept it as a clever chat session instead of heeding Apatow’s advice. But it’s an understandable temptation: I don’t like watching bad things happen to people. I think, how much nicer would it be to just observe the Algonquin table roam around Rome for an hour and a half?
And then I sit through a movie like To Rome with Love and am humbly reminded why it’s just so boring to watch characters you don’t care about recite over-written conversations.
One of the film’s four unrelated storylines, featuring a lost-cell-phone-induced separation of two innocent young Italian lovers and the hilarity that ensues, is fun and amusing, but the joy is lost in the long 102-minute waiting time for the end credits. The vignette for Allen’s own character, essentially a witty gabfest about why Allen is afraid of retirement, is perhaps justification for said fear, or at least evidence for why making a movie once a year is a rough goal. But the parts with Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page are ground zero for what was both aggravating and tiring about the movie. Greta Gerwig, who plays Eisenberg’s sweet but aloof girlfriend, essentially invites Page, a self-involved actress, to stay with them and seduce her boyfriend.Aside from the over-done dialogue, what kills it is the sense that all these characters are so narcissistic that even if their relationships fall apart it still won’t really bother them. Why root for them? Why not? Two hours later, it is what it is.
The final storyline with Italian actor Roberto Benigni, who plays a briefly and arbitrarily celebrated media darling, has drawn a kind of “like Celebrity but worse” reaction. But the images of paparazzi swarms in Rome also harken flashbacks to 8 ½, Fellini’s film about, among other things, what happens when an in-demand artist lacks inspiration. You can’t then but sense that Allen, between his wonderfully inventive, intelligent films like Sweet and Lowdown or Midnight in Paris, has powered through the less inspired periods with sit-down-start-writing-and-see-what-I-come-up-with films like Whatever Works or You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.
The thematic end-note, if you want to call it that, comes from Benigni’s storyline: after he’s been dumped by the paparazzi, he launches into a fit looking for attention, and his old chauffer reminds him that it’s better to have a little fame than none at all. I wouldn’t question Allen’s sincerity, and for that matter, far be it from me to knock the career of one of the greatest auteurs of all time. And you sense at this point that he’s making these films to keep his hands busy just as much as anything, with no pretense for each one to be deemed a masterpiece. But if there is any strain in Woody Allen that’s producing a fear of cultural irrelevance, he’s going about it wrong. Just shed some dialogue and put in a couple explosions. Or Snooki and JWoww. Same thing.