Has Woody Allen's movie-a-year schedule used up his cinematic gifts?
Back in 2004, in an interview with the Observer, Woody Allen confessed that while he still hoped to make another great movie, "I don't think that's going to happen any more. If I keep working, I think it's possible that I could do a great movie some day by accident." It was, in essence, a more individualized version of his oft-quoted dictum that "80 percent of success is just showing up." One can hardly fault his subsequent attendance record—he's released a feature a year ever since—yet the hoped-for accident has yet to materialize. The closest he's come, 2005's Match Point, was not a bad movie, but it was by no stretch a great one. And, while it may be a minority view, I should note here that I found Midnight in Paris, for all its plaudits, a genuinely awful film.
In recent years, Allen has made a clear effort to shake up his longstanding routine. Once anchored immovably to the island of Manhattan, he's become a cinematic Fodor's Guide to Europe, shooting four movies in London and one each in Barcelona, Paris, and, now, Rome. It seems only a matter of time before he treats us to Hamburg Diaries or Oy, Gdansk!
But the hectic, film-a-year pace continues. And while some may find this ethic admirable, it increasingly seems less a choice than a compulsion. Allen has never skimped on autobiography in his movies, and in his latest, To Rome with Love, the character he plays—a retired opera producer—repeatedly grouses about how much he misses work, only to be told (twice!) by his wife (played by Judy Davis) that he equates retirement with death.
Moreover, it's hard to escape the sense that Allen's metronomic schedule betrays a certain contempt for the craft of filmmaking. After all, "showing up" and hoping for a lucky "accident" is hardly a statement of artistic commitment. (Similar attitudes surface frequently in interviews with Allen, as when he boasted that rewriting the nationality of a principal character in Match Point due to a casting change took "about an hour.") Not every filmmaker needs to challenge Terrence Malick when it comes to brooding perfectionism. But surely there is a happy medium.
In any case, the tossed-off, rough-draft quality that has become characteristic of so many recent Allen films has rarely been on clearer display than it is in To Rome with Love, a half-hearted mishmash of competing styles and storylines.
To begin with, there's the film's painfully tourist-bureau, Rome 101 air. "It's the eternal city," enthuses one character, "nothing ever changes." The rest of the cast continue the sell: "In this city, all is a story"; "like what you read about in all those romantic novels"; "it's incredible the Colosseum is still standing after thousands of years"; "this must be the most beautiful terrace in Rome, with the Spanish Steps right there."
To Rome with Love tells four stories that crisscross these hallowed landmarks without intersecting. An American couple (Allen, Davis) meet the parents of their daughter's Italian fiancé, and discover that the father (played by Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato) has a miraculous voice for opera—but he is only capable of singing in the shower. A pair of newlyweds from the sticks (Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi) get separated by accident and find themselves carnally entangled with, respectively, a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) and a movie star (Antonio Albanese). An architect and man of the world (Alec Baldwin) encounters a younger version of himself (Jesse Eisenberg) and ethereally counsels him against the poor romantic decisions (involving Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig) he made long ago. An everyday schmoe (Roberto Benigni) walks out of his apartment one day to discover, in reverse-Kafka fashion, that he has abruptly and inexplicably become the most well-known celebrity in Italy, courted incessantly by talk-show hosts and nubile starlets. (Why? In a rather shallow dig at reality-TV culture, it's explained that he's "famous for being famous.")
Also, they're all bad—or at least pitiably undernourished. It's as if Allen had a handful of early ideas kicking around, couldn't settle on any one of them, saw his psychological nuclear-countdown clock ticking toward the one-year mark, and threw together what he had. Though the storylines are interspersed throughout the film, they don't even cohere chronologically: One takes course over the span of an afternoon, another over several weeks, and the final two somewhere in between.
There is one good gag along the way—it involves a handshake with a mortician—and it is telling that it perhaps the simplest moment in the film. The rest is underwritten and over-explained in equal measure. As in Midnight in Paris, Allen is intent on flattering his audience by telling them things they already know. (Hemingway liked to fight!) Here again, he name-drops promiscuously (Strindberg, Pound, Dostoyevsky) but generally to no particular end. I can't say whether it is meant to be ironic, but an observation that Baldwin's character makes of Page's—"She knows one line from every poet, just enough to fake it"—serves as an admirable critique of the film as a whole.
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Allen seems to be aiming for the precise intersection of art and commerce in which sophistication is implied, but nothing that takes place is ever obscure or challenging or revelatory. Locales are familiar, references transparent, jokes patiently underlined. To cite a typical example: When Cruz's prostitute is touring the Sistine Chapel, another character asks, "Can you imagine working all that time on your back?" A glance from Cruz would have sufficed as punch line. But Allen evidently lacks such faith in his audience, instead having her spell it out: "I can." All that's missing is the rim-shot.
The more wearying tropes of the Allen oeuvre—the rampant infidelities, the men lusting after women 30 years their juniors, the prurient whiff of girl-on-girl action—are present in abundance, and the dialogue is frequently arduous. (Wife contemplating cheating on her husband: "My goodness. What a dilemma!" Movie star with whom she may cheat: "Let's not get into semantics.")
Toward the end of the film, two of its storylines begin to converge, at least implicitly. Allen's character gets one more chance to produce a show, and he is delighted with the result, even though it is ridiculed in the Italian press. (He doesn't realize this, of course, because despite his education and cosmopolitanism he believes the word imbecili must be a compliment akin to "maestro." I would like to say that Allen trusts the audience to discern its true meaning, but, no, he has another character translate it for us.) Meanwhile, the fame that briefly alighted upon Benigni's character has just as capriciously departed, leaving him deprived of the opportunity to have threesomes with supermodels. "To be a celebrity is definitely better," he declares, as he literally undresses in the street, desperate for attention, any attention.
Is the allure of ongoing fame—a panned opera production, the stare of sidewalk gawkers, or even a slipshod film rushed into a predetermined schedule—worth embarrassing oneself for? We seem to have Allen's answer.