June 27 2012 01:36 PM

Director's new one has to be judged against his previous work

Odd sexpot Ellen Page and Jesse Eisenberg

Woody Allen is his own worst enemy, and, no, I'm not talking about his marriage to Soon-Yi. See, Allen's biggest problem is that his best work, his most original, ground-breaking, never-seen-anything-quite-like-it work, is pretty much behind him, and that means that anything he does from now until the end of time—and that's bound to be a lot if he stays on this one-film-a-year schedule—is going to be compared with movies like Annie Hall and Manhattan.

The guy's never going to get a break, even when we see flashes of the brilliance we once expected from him, like with last year's Midnight in Paris, which was whimsical, charming and nostalgic. And then there's the mediocre To Rome with Love, which opens in San Diego on Friday, June 29, which feels like little more than a disjointed trifle.

There are some interesting ideas here, but they're either not fleshed out enough, or are unnecessarily explored. To Rome with Love has funny moments, but the key concepts are buried so far below the surface that Allen doesn't really scratch them. It has to be said, too, that since most of Allen's recent films have been shot in wonderfully exotic European locations, the hit-or-miss results feel like excuses to spend some time in a lovely place, subsidized by someone wealthy.

Four stories are on display, though they never intersect, each existing in its own vacuum. And some vacuums suck more than others. Most interesting is the one that stars Jesse Eisenberg as Jack, an up-andcoming architect who meets John (Alec Baldwin), a successful architect who used to live in the same area where Jack lives with his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig). Sally's friend Monica (Ellen Page) is coming for a visit, and Sally's worried that Jack might fall for the odd little sexpot. And with good reason—there's something about Monica that yanks Jack's crank. John sees it coming and warns him against it, showing up in ways and places that cannot be explained unless you assume that John's reliving his own past and the mistakes he made.

This one is about regret over not being able to control one's own heart. Allen's best movies—hell, Allen's own life—are about people who fall for someone else in spite of themselves, but he's made many films on the subject that are considerably more interesting than To Rome with Love, though there's a wistful, cynical quality to it that's nicely realized by Baldwin.

The heart also plays a starring role in the tale of a young Italian couple who've just moved to Rome. She gets lost and winds up on a film set, being seduced by the power of the camera, while he ends up being seduced by the prostitute (Penelope Cruz) who accidentally shows up in his room. In this case, Allen is saying that though you can be in love with someone, your heart might want someone else right now.

Allen turns up on screen, too, playing Jerry, a reluctantly retired opera director who travels to Rome with his wife (Judy Davis) to meet Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), his daughter's (Alison Pill) fiancé. It's there that he learns that his daughter's soon-to-be father-in-law, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), has an extraordinary voice—but only when he's in the shower. It's a joke taken too far in the name of success and fame, though the exploration of fame, which is thrust upon Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), is more intriguing. He's an average guy who wakes up one morning to learn that for no discernable reason, he's the most famous man in Italy.

You wish Allen had kept the first and last stories and really explored them with gusto, in which case there would be more to love about To Rome with Love. But for a film shot in a city with so much history, this one can't stand up against Woody Allen's own history. 

Write to anders@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. You can follow Anders on Twitter at @anderswright.


See all events on Thursday, Oct 20