Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: To Rome With Love

How many movies does a writer/director have to make before he no longer has to follow any rules of logic or good storytelling? How many movies until he’s allowed to just recycle elements from his other movies and no one cares? Whatever that number is Woody Allen obviously has passed it. And that’s fine, for what it is. But not fine when he’s still considered a genius and if he should through sheer volume turn out something even halfway decent he’s showed with award nominations.

Which brings me to FROM ROME WITH LOVE. I’ve lost track. I think it’s Allen’s 284th film.

First the good news: It’s amusing in spots. It looks pretty. Penelope Cruz’s dress. Judy Davis. Alec Baldwin. Woody Allen is in it but doesn’t play Allison Pill’s love interest.

Now for the bad news: It’s a slapdash series of vignettes. Most are one-joke premises that get replayed over and over. The payoffs all fizzle. And several are confusing.

At this point I should say SPOILER ALERT. But truthfully, what follows is a SPOILER HELPFUL BRIEFING. This may save you some time trying to figure out things when no attempt has been made to explain them.

These vignettes all seemingly start at the same time. But some unfold over the course of one day and others stretch over a week and I guess months. Yet Woody keeps cutting back and forth between them.  Huh? There’s no continuity whatsoever. But that’s only a problem if you’re a filmmaker that cares whether your audience is tracking your story. I guess after you’ve made 43 movies you no longer have to concern yourself with that.

Alec Baldwin essentially has the role Bogart had in PLAY IT AGAIN SAM. I think once you’ve made 26 movies you are allowed to rehash old ideas instead of trying to conceive new ones. In the same way that the ghost of Bogart advised Woody Allen, Alec advises Jesse Eisenberg (who, by the way, plays the same smug character in every movie). Except Alec’s not always a ghost. Sometimes he’s real. And sometimes only Jesse can hear him while other times Ellen Page can hear him as well.  Huh?  Don’t bother trying to figure that out. After 37 movies the filmmaker doesn’t have to establish and follow any rules.

Roberto Benigni plays an average schmoe who walks out of his house one morning and is mobbed by the paparazzi. He can’t understand why. Neither can the audience. You keep waiting for it to be explained. Is he being mistaken for someone else? Every time they cut to another scene of him being mobbed (and there are like seven or eight of them – all the exact same) you’re trying to decipher just why. Don’t bother. It seems that once you make 41 movies you no longer have to justify any behavior or explain anything to the audience.

People aren’t laughing because they’re confused. Not important.

At what point do Academy members and WGA members stop rewarding Woody Allen for sloppy filmmaking? How many movies until he reaches that number?

I’m sure Woody Allen is laughing at all the voters. He obviously knows better. He knows when he’s cutting corners.

So if I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this picture despite some good moments, it’s because I’m the one who’s supposed to be laughing at Woody Allen comedies, not him.


Blaze said...

This weekend, with an eye to taking in a movie, I scanned down the list. "To Rome with Love"? Not some remake of "Roman Holiday", I hope. I clicked to see some details. Woody Allen and back to the list. Not even a hint of hesitation or mulling. No thanks, goodbye.

Mike Barer said...

It sounds like a great movie to take my wife to. Please, we been there so if the movie is bad, we can enjoy the scenery.

Johnny Walker said...

My 2c:

Woody Allen is an odd character. I learned far too much about him during my "Woody Allen-Athon" (I'll eventually finish it), but personal feelings aside, I honestly think he compulsively makes films because he's so depressed. It gives him a reason to get up in the morning, and do something.

After reading so many interviews with him (pretty much all of them, I think), and watching so many of his films, the guy appears to be continuously eaten alive by existential angst.

I need to go back and check my notes, but knowing what I do now, I think part of the reason he hates Annie Hall so much is that it makes fun of who he is:

We all laugh when he says, "I'm obsessed with death", and when he says, "I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. And if you're miserable, you should count yourself lucky", but that's the REAL Woody Allen. Deadly serious, and obsessed with the bleak meaninglessness of existence.

The more his career continues, it feels like he just writes humour because he can. And it starts to feel that way if you look backwards, too. He doesn't actually believe any of the positivity that occasionally comes out of his comedy.

On top of this, he also takes the high road, claiming that he's not remotely bothered by the critical response to his films. He just wants to keep trying to make "art", and he often doesn't agree with us when we feel he's been successful.

He doesn't collect his awards, doesn't care about reviews (from fans or critics), and doesn't care about the financial success of him movies (outside of his funders getting a return).

This sounds like he's really taking "artistic" moral high-ground, but really he's just detached himself from the rest of the world.

It's this detachment that allows him to keep pumping out films, and also to marry his son's sister. He's in his own little weird bubble.

I have a personal theory that he will stop at 50 films, if he lives that long, but we'll see. (This is his 45th, I believe? It's hard to keep count of his "proper" attempts.)

That all said, if he makes a good film, I guess it deserves recognition... but the positive response does seem disproportionate. Any tiny glimmer of the brilliance of Annie Hall and everyone seems to lose their minds.

Looking at it this way; If he'd made all the bad movies first, and had only just started making the good ones now, nobody would be calling him a genius.

Such is the weird career of Woody Allen.

Anonymous said...

The only Woody Allen movie I can tolerate (and that includes Annie Hall) is Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex...

Short vinettes, some hilarious, some not so much, but watchable. Gene Wilder as the OB/GYN obsessed with a sheep was amazing.

But his other movies, I can't just don't get.

Pam aka SisterZip

Jake said...

I don't know Ken, I love Woody. And while I thought this movie was all-in-all pretty bad (though I notice you didn't spoil what is probably Woody's funniest and most relatable and clever gag he's come up with in maybe ever), finding out its original title was "The Bop Decameron" squared some of the issues you're wrestling with in terms of continuity for me. And I think the Alec Baldwin part follows an internal sort of logic (he's witnessing his life before his eyes - it's not that Alec is the unreal character, it's the other three).

Anyhow, pretty bad Woody. But pretty bad Woody is still better than 75% of the other stuff the Movie Machine is pumping out. Would you rather watch this, or Salmon Fishing in the Yemin (not bad by all accounts), Big Miracle, Mirror Mirror, A Thousand Words, Madea's Witness Protection, American Reunion, People Like Us, Drunkboat, or The Magic of Belle Isle?

Mike Bell said...

Buy tickets to my movie! I have a gub.

Mr. Hollywood said...

Much like you Ken, I loved his early films which were so reminiscent of the Marx Brothers ... loved ANNIE HALL, BROADWAY DANNY ROSE, RADIO DAYS, ZELIG ... but I have never been a fan of his "relationship angst" films ... I do think he should take some kind of creative break from film-making, but I think it's his life blood and if he did, he would simply die.

Larry said...

Woody has done great work but his insistence on a film per year (writing, directing, often acting) has led to slapdash work. Are rents so high in Manhattan that he can't afford to take two years per film?

In the last couple decades, he's made more dogs than truly worthwhile works. In fact, if his name wasn't on these films, I think a lot more critics would dismiss them as worthless. As for repeating himself, he's been relying on certain tropes for about thirty years now.

Still, his best is so great that he's earned a lifetime pass. Hollywood may be about how good your last film is, but no amount of dogs can take away from the classic work he's done.

Tom Quigley said...

Somewhere along the line way back a long time ago, Woody Allen allowed his personal issues to become entangled with his ability to tell a good comic/romantic story. The result was a mishmash of what we've gotten from him over the last 25 years. While I wouldn't walk across the street to see a Woody Allen film these days, I'm always ready to go back and watch stuff like ANNIE HALL, SLEEPER, BANANAS, and LOVE AND DEATH.

Cathy S. said...

Midnight in Paris was a lovely movie. Nothing about his other recent movies has grabbed me enough to spend time watching them. But except for the way too long introductory shots of Paris at the beginning (I started with "look how beautiful Paris is" and ended with "my god, when will this ever end") the movie was funny and sweet and had a point. Apparently that's more than you can say about To Rome with Love.

BTW, Ken, loved the ever-changing number of films that Woody made throughout your review.

Breadbaker said...

I'd read a number of positive reviews and so saw it on Thursday. Sorry I didn't wait for Ken's definitive review.

Essentially, this was an hour long sketch comedy (with time out for long commercial breaks) stretched into an hour and a half movie, with all the filler ruining whatever was good in it.

My least favorite moments were:

There's a moment when the famous actor tells the astronomy teacher that he wants to play music from his youth, only he's about my age and that music was from the forties, not rock and roll. Woody may not have noticed this, but someone in his fifties did not grow up with Rita Hayworth any longer.

My wife wanted to walk out when Woody first appears and he's doing ridiculously tired shtick about being afraid of planes. This was fresh forty years ago.

There's a moment when Roberto Benigni (whom I actually enjoyed for much of his scenes) comes back after his fifteen minutes are up and wants to take his family out for pizza. That left a good feeling about his whole ordeal and if it had ended there it would have been fine: the dork had learned that his family was better than sudden, unexplained fame. But Woody couldn't leave well enough alone and added more to it.

During the entire Alec Baldwin/Jesse Eisenberg/Ellen Page thing, I simply referred to them in my head as Alec, Jesse and Ellen because they didn't seem to be playing characters, just themselves. Ellen Page may be able to play a sexpot, but not when directed by Woody Allen. Her entire body language was wrong. I kept expecting Alec to sell me a Capital One card and Jesse to get me to sign up for Facebook.

Brian Smith said...

Jake: I really wavered on whether it was Alec Baldwin reliving his youth; on the one hand, everyone's names were different, but on the other hand, that would explain where he got the phrase "Ozymandian melancholy," but on the FIRST hand, why did Ellen Page have a cell phone if we were reliving a period that had to be set sometime during the 1980s? I even briefly went through an "Oh, it's 'The Sixth Sense' all over again!" phase.

And after seeing Ornella Muti's name in the opening credits, I spent way too much of the movie psyched up to see the "Flash Gordon" actress on whom I had such a crush as a teenager...and was disappointed that she only had a cameo as "nice actress lady."

Frank said...

Bring back Danny Rose!

jbryant said...

In fairness, of the 27 films Woody has made since HANNAH AND HER SISTERS got a Best Picture nomination for 1986, he has garnered exactly one other Best Pic nod, for last year's MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. True, in that time he also scored writing and/or directing nods for 8 other films. That still leaves 18 that were snubbed by the Academy.

If you look at only the last 18 features (assuming TO ROME WITH LOVE doesn't get a nod), Woody got nominations for only 4 of them. I haven't looked at the WGA stats, but it doesn't seem to me that the Academy is exactly overdoing it.

D. McEwan said...

Well, they're taking your pan of this film (Which I shall skip) better than they took my pan of Midnight in Paris over in Tallulah's blog, which I found overpraised, to put it exteremely mildly. How the hell that self-indulgent mess won a screenplay Oscar is beyond me.

Joe Menta said...

Saw this on Saturday.

My only real gripe (and I'm right in line with Ken here) was the lack of explanation about who or what Alec's character was REALLY supposed to be. That would have been easy enough to fine tune with one more pass through the screenplay.

For some reason, I accepted the farcical nature of the Roberto Benigni storyline even though there was no logical explanation about why the reporters were suddenly following him. I guess the outright farce, and the way it reminded me of Woody's surreal "New Yorker" pieces of year's past, was enough for me.

All the opera scenes involving the showers (I'll say no more) were so silly they were hilarious.

In the end, I enjoyed "To Rome With Love" as decent mid-level Woody, a modest treat on a pleasant Saturday evening in downtown Philly.

Admittedly, our stop at the Continental Restaurant and Martini Bar right after the film may have retroactively rosey-ed up my view of the film a bit. ;)

Stephan said...

TO ROME WITH LOVE isn't a bad movie. It's just not a very good one.

Personally, I think Woody should have quit last year, after MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. It was the best thing he's done in years and a surprise hit with audiences, after years of his movies being consigned to the tiny "art house" screen at the multiplex.

But quitting while you're ahead has never been Hollywood's strong point. I have a lot of respect for the Cary Grants and the Doris Days and the Deanna Durbins, who choose not to overstay their welcome and step out of the limelight voluntarily. That type is the exception, though.

My all-time favorite example of someone who didn't know when to quit was Mae West and her film SEXTETTE, which was perhaps the most appalling, grotesque thing I have ever witnessed in my life.

chas said...

I thought the point of the Roberto Benigni bit was that there lots of "celebrities" out there that the media creates for no apparent reason. Maybe I'm giving Woody too much credit, but I thought that's what he had in mind. One or two scenes, however, would have been plenty to get this across, rather than piling it on ad nauseum.

Greg Ehrbar said...

When I first heard the title was "To Rome With Love," I was surprised that Woody Allen would want to do a big screen version of that heartwarming 1969 John Forsythe sitcom -- the one that sometimes featured crossover characters from its sister shows, "Family Affair" and "My Three Sons."

Who would play Buffy? Would there still be a Mrs. Beasley? Alec Baldwin was in this movie -- would he play Uncle Charley?

But oh, apparently it's a new film with the same name. But I do wonder, though, what Allen might do with a remake of "Occasional Wife" or "Love on a Rooftop."

Kelly Sedinger said...

Interesting...your first two questions in this post are precisely why I can't watch anything by Aaron Sorkin anymore.

estiv said...

I remember a scene in Small Time Crooks (from 2000) that confused me, and later reading an interview with Woody where he said that scene really should have had an extra closeup to clarify an important plot point. But he just didn't feel like taking the extra time to get the shot that day. Says it all.

On the other hand, this post and its comments wouldn't exist if he hadn't once done brilliant work. Michael Bay will never disappoint me, since he'll never make anything with the potential to change my view of life.

Cory said...

Agree with everything you said. Anyone else turns this script in and it's laughed out of the room.

Bill McCloskey said...

Oh Please. Isn't this the same guy who hit it out the park on his last at bat, both artistically and financially? I loved Midnight in Paris. The trailers for this latest one haven't thrilled me but I am used to him being hit and miss. But judging from Midnight, he can still do a Babe Ruth.

He's made more good films than anyone and more great films that will live the test of time than nearly anyone.

I go to cheer him on even though he can't run around the bases any more cause sometimes he clobbers it and creates Midnight which reminded me why I like film in the first place and oh how I miss it.

Bradley said...

Friday question: Did you have anything to do with Kevin Kilner's appearance on the Frasier episode Roz and the Schnoz that you directed, or was it a happy accident? He was so terrific on Almost Perfect that I wondered if it came about at your suggestion. On a related note, why did he leave AP after the first season? He's criminally underrated/underemployed, IMO.

James said...

80dragerso"How many movies does a writer/director have to make before he no longer has to follow any rules of logic or good storytelling?"

If you're talking about Woody Allen.


Bad jokes, aside -- can you honestly say this has not been his modus operandi since his very first films? Annie Hall was cut together from what was supposed to be a murder mystery.

The Milner Coupe said...

What Bill McCloskey said...

I'll take ten, scratch that, twenty Woody Allen films to one Transformer movie.

You hate him, we get it.

A__Homer said...

I wss a fan of Allen's films, but haven't been interested to keep up. I would suggest skip this film and watch the first hour of the American Masters documentary on him. He was never some cliche shoegazing existentialist, death-obsessesed neurotic, he knew enough to make a character. The guy was athletic in school - track, etc - good relationship with his family, mother and sister (who produces) and that continues through his life; we know he plays music every week, again, much more well-rounded, healthy, social being than most artists. He was hustling as a teenager making money off of selling jokes, and learns on his feet, whether going into stand-up comedy (at the request of his agents - he was awful at first) to his first directorial film (Take the Money and Run) which he himself said was awful in the rough presentation to the execs, nothing like the final. It was master editor Ralph Rosenblum who reworked it, told him to trust his ideas, return material and to add music to it. Allen's best work is influenced by the collabs. His agents helped invent the independent system he has with finance. The collaborative support shaped him, and when he went on his own devices, it becomes self-indulgent Interiors.

While surely Bergman films became powerful for him in his themes and narratives, so were Bob Hope films, as he points out, a coward character who wins and who often breaks the fourth wall. To me, Allen's best work is his character, which this documentary showed, is hardly death-obsessed one-dimensional, but neurotic as a fox.

Johnny Walker said...

Louise Lasser talks about the "darkness" that plagues him, and how important it is to his art. Allen likes to portray himself as a perfectly rounded human being, and indeed that's what I believed to begin with, but the more time I spent in his company (through films and interviews) it became clear that was only his opinion of himself.

During the custody battle for his children, Allen said many times that the most important thing was his relationship with his kids. It didn't matter to him that the judge considered him a very unfit father, with an unhealthy relationship with his adoptive daughter (and I don't mean the one he married).

And yet he's never shown any remorse for the pain he caused his family. He only ever talks about Soon-Yi as "most fortuitous thing that ever happened to me". His explanation for doing what he did: "The heart wants what the heart wants."

I realise that the artist is separate to their art, but it saddens me that the documentary helps perpetuate the myth that Allen, is a perfectly normal, well-adjusted human being.

I would love to believe that myth.

As for him not being obsessed by death and being filled with existential angst, hear it in Woody's own words:

“There are some laughs you have in life, provided by comedians and provided by fortuitous moments with your family or friends or something,” he says. “But most of life is tragic. You’re born, you don’t why. You’re here, you don’t know why. You go, you die. Your family dies. Your friends die. People suffer. People live in constant terror. The world is full of poverty and corruption and war and Nazis and tsunamis. ... The net result, the final count is, you lose — you don’t beat the house.

“If you were lucky, if you were healthy and rich and everything worked out for you, you could laugh your whole life. But ultimately, what is it? It’s less than a microsecond in the long run.”

Wow. Way to appreciate your lucky life, Mr. Allen. Not at all a depressing or negative view of existence.

The rest of us, for the most part, manage to find happiness and contentment in our day to day lives. (I know I do.)

In Woody Allen on Woody Allen he reveals that he completely shares Alvy Singer's beliefs. To him, all life really is "miserable or tragic". He really does love the book "The Denial of Death". He really does believe everyone is unhappy.

As for not being neurotic, he spent 30 years in therapy.

Why he continuously makes films:

“It serves me therapeutically when I do it. I like writing. It keeps my mind off grim subjects,” he says. “It’s therapeutic in the same way a patient in an institution is given fingerpaints.”

I'm sure a lot of artists would say the same thing, but it's not someone who is motivated by the enjoyment of creating, he's motivated by the need to be distracted from his demons.

On the Soon-Yi debacle:

“At the time that all that was going on, you know, I was doing my movies and put out a play and was playing with my jazz band,” he says. “That was something that was much more in the press than in my own personal life. I was isolated from the whole thing — as I’ve lived my whole life, isolated and working.”

"Everything I did, I did. I’ve lived my life exactly the way I wanted to live it, and never had any regrets."

“I have my own little world that I live in, and it’s pleasurable for me to the degree that anything can be pleasurable in this world.”

Isolated. Own little world. No regrets (! - I thought he cared more about his children than anything else -- he doesn't care at all how much he hurt them?). Bleak view of existence. Doesn't care what the rest of the world thinks.

He's so out of touch with the world around that he considered hiring Mia Farrow for Mighty Aphrodite. His casting director had to talk him out of it.

Personally, this is not how I'd describe a well-adjusted person.

Craig Edwards said...

Kevin Kilner is a fine man and a good actor who should be better known and working constantly.

gottacook said...

A__Homer: With respect to your comments about Ralph Rosenblum, all I can say is that when I saw Interiors in 1978, the very first credit after the title was "Edited by Ralph Rosenblum." I've never before or since seen an editor given the first credit; it made me think Allen was likely a mensch.

A_Homer said...

Yes, Interiors was much later and my interest was that Allen so graciously states it on camera now, how much his first film was just "not there" until he showed it to Rosenblum, who came up with key points that we identify with Allen (including the use of music etc.) Also I highly recommend Rosenblum's book on his editing such films, each its own chapter, quite amazing.

A_Homer said...

@JohnnyWalker : Thanks for the resesarched citations for just my blog comment. They support your perspective. The chance to discuss with Allen must have been interesting.

I know Allen's statements inform us of his worldview etc… no surprise, I was trying to point to a difficulty not to confuse character with author, even if it is overlapped, at significant points it is not. I think that was one good part of the documentary, because people seem to imagine him as his character, as if he lives 24 hours a day stating such things, in the voice and manner of his character on screen, a character that has become by "Annie Hall" as well-known to some degree as Chaplin's "Tramp". The documentary shows (also what Cavett often mentions) is that he grew up quite different, social, connected to family, athletic, a musician, and by high school he was hustling to produce jokes. That hunger and trajectory through sharp humor didn't come from "meaningless" alone. I appreciated the documentary works to show something related to the field he contributed to. I like that it discusses the development of his creative works, to see a character being constructed, the importance of his advisors, agents and collaborators as voices that allowed him to then shape the classic Allen. I was surprised he admits the importance of Rosenblum's role even,

What is odd, the documentary never mentions what influenced Allen in terms of literature he read, what informed him as he never went to any studies after high school. It is just assumed he is "intellectual" and got it from the environment or something.

I don't know if all this I described in the (part1) documentary makes Allen "well-adjusted", I doubt any mega-successful filmmaker/author of his creative stature is. In fact, chances are the average person on the NYC street is probably is only "adjusted". As for 30 years of therapy, I'm from NYC of the 70s and 80s and the norm was everyone who could afford it went to the therapist, for decades. That isn't really a sign of anything out of the ordinary, mid/upper-class standard, especially in creative "intellectual" circles. It's a dialog.

I found it interesting his exes come off more caring rather than careful. Sure, it is easier because it is all pre-Farrow period, which is another chapter. I was more interested in seeing how he developed in the beginning phase. If anything, what I noted that interest me about collaborators and advisors seems to just become big ensemble-acting now, with Allen just saying "hello" and letting them get on with it..

Kirk said...

I'm not a psychiatrist or psychologist, so I can't tell you whether Woody Allen is sane or not, but I do know this: well-adjusted people make bad movies all the time, as well as good movies, and those in-between. And some well-adjusted people may capable of making all three if they're prolific enough.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

actually the whole 'normal guy is being followed by paparazzi' thing sounds like a good idea... for a surreal sketch show (like every other British sketch show these days).

Sue said...

I think it extremely interesting that when reviewing a Woody Allen movie he gets compared to Woody Allen and not other writers. The same can be said for Aaron Sorkin. With his new series the critics were saying "Will this be as good as West Wing or as bad as Studio 60? There has to be a fairly substantial and exceptional body of work for a writer to be compared with himself.

cadavra said...

I read Rosenblum's book many years ago and it's as appalling as it is fascinating. With the single exception of Sidney Lumet, he trashes every single director he worked with, painting them as know-nothing boobs whose movies were saved in the cutting room by the Greatest. Editor. Ever. (Even Mel Brooks comes off like a crazy person.) It's no surprise that his career came to a virtual dead halt after its publication; this guy not only burned his bridges, he blew up the roads as well.

Johnny Walker said...

A_Homer: I'm just a fan. I meant READING interviews. Sorry for any confusion!

Yes, I know what you mean. The first thing you learn about Allen when studying him is how unlike his persona he actually is. The second thing you learn is how similar to his persona he is: Just not in the way you previously thought.

I'd be interested to know your impressions after part two, and if the documentarians played it safe, or if they started to notice the inconsistencies between who Allen wants us to think he is, and who he actually is.

Anyways, it's nice to be able to discuss Allen in some detail!

Cadavra: I've got to read that book!

Did anyone catch Allen's son's Tweet on Father's Day incidentally? His opinion of his father's actions don't seem to have changed since he last publicly spoke about them:

"Happy Father's Day, or as we say in my family, happy brother-in-law's day"

cadavra said...

Here ya go, Johnny:

A_Homer said...

Yes, but it was fascinating in the details of technique, and each of his stories was believable in the details, which is where the devil is. He wasnt gossip, he was explaining where and what happened in his opinion and the low esteem he held for the way directors got all the credit and the editors were treated as if technicians. And you have to wonder, did Mel Brooks sound so far off character really? "The Producers" stands out from all his other films that follow, which are more like cartoons.

cadavra said...

Correct, the actual details of what he did as an editor are what's fascinating. What was unnecessary was all the name-calling and pejoratives. He could have made his points without all that.