"To Rome With Love" is lesser Woody Allen -- better than the likes of "Whatever Works" and "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger," but nothing compared to "Midnight in Paris" -- but it's still Woody Allen. As a film critic Jordan Hoffman wrote, Allen's films are like pizza: "Even when they're bad, they're good."
"I try to make a good picture each time," Allen said during a press conference in New York on Tuesday. "Either I make it or I don't make it. ['Midnight in Paris'] was a happy accident. I have no idea why everyone embraced the picture so enthusiastically. You make a movie and some pictures they like a little bit, some they like a lot, some they don't like at all. It's very capricious for the filmmaker."
Allen said that all his films have the same appeal -- or lack thereof. But while Allen himself doesn't see a major difference between his master works and minor scribbles, you might. With its four disconnected vignettes, "To Rome With Love" is a movie where no ideas get fleshed out as much as they deserve.
That's most unfortunate when considering the story involving Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig. It's vintage Allen -- a bit of caustic and neurotic romantic comedy that cuts to the bone in ways few filmmakers ever achieve. It also presents itself as something more: a deconstruction of Woody Allen fan culture, which is all the more appropriate coming after the director's most attended theatrical release.
In "To Rome With Love," Eisenberg plays Jack, the de facto Allen stand-in, a jumpy American architect who has his world turned upside when his girlfriend's W.B. Yeats-quoting best pal Monica (Page) comes to visit Rome. Thanks to Monica's personal baggage and a free-spirited sexuality, Jack's doomed from the start -- something Baldwin's John (a fellow architect who acts as a Greek chorus, visible only to Jack and Monica) spots immediately. The audience watches Jack's spiral toward the abyss play out like a slow-motion car accident as John narrates, all the while never missing an opportunity to eviscerate Monica and her manipulative, faux-smartness with biting viciousness.
If Monica seems familiar, that's because you've seen her before. She's not Annie Hall, but the girl who grew up watching "Annie Hall." Monica behaves in a manner befitting an Allen female lead, but -- fractured through the prism of Baldwin's aged wisdom -- she comes off as unappealing and desperate. Her intellectual musings are job-interview ready; Monica knows just enough, no more or less. She's as superficial as the instant celebrity that befalls Roberto Benigni's character in one of "Rome's" other storylines.
It's dangerous to play amateur psychologist when watching a film, but in the case of Allen, he practically invites you do so. One reading of Monica is that she's how Allen could view his drive-by fans -- the fair-weather tourists who know "Annie Hall," "Manhattan" and "Midnight in Paris," but shrug when his other films come up in conversation. She's the monster Allen's breakout successes have created over the last five decades. She won't eat the bad pizza.
"You can't corral people like Monica," Allen says in the "To Rome With Love" press notes. "They're too desirable and everybody wants them and they learn that early on. It's very difficult to have a long-term stable relationship with that kind of person."