1. One of my favorite Roger Ebert quotes goes like this: “The Muse visits during the act of creation, not before. Don’t wait for her. Start alone.” That’s to say: To create great work, you must first work. Not everything you create will be perfect; in fact, most of it won’t be. But you can’t wait for inspiration to strike. You have to just plug, plug away until you land on something great. Woody Allen was once asked how he comes up with so many jokes. He said (and I’m paraphrasing): “I have no idea. When I write something funny, I laugh, because it’s the first time I’ve seen it. But I have no idea how it got there. I just was writing and then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, there it is.” This has essentially been Woody Allen’s career for the last 15 years. He toils away, making a movie a year, no matter what, and sometimes he stumbles across something truly inspired (Midnight in Paris, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Sweet Lowdown), but most of the time he has a few three-quarters-baked ideas that don’t add up to much but are still interesting to listen to and absorb.
2. This strikes me as not much of a crime. Allen is often criticized for his prolific output, as if he would somehow make movies twice as good if he slowed down and made one every two years. It is my experience that this is not how it works. Besides: He’s a 76-year-old man who still uses a typewriter. Let him have his movies; if all I have to do is sit impatiently through a few trifling films that aren’t much more than light re-recitals of old themes to get a Midnight In Paris every four or five years, I’ll take it. To Rome With Love is definitely minor Woody, a frothy little short story collection that is mildly amusing and superficially insightful and instantly forgettable. That doesn’t mean it’s not still sorta fun and worth tolerating and waiting through until the muse alights again. If the worst-case scenario is a movie like To Rome With Love, I’ll happily take it.
3. The Euro setting for this one is Rome, obviously, “the eternal city” in which ancient ruins lie next to McDonald’s, and no one can figure out how to walk anywhere without getting lost. I sort of like how Woody, in travelogue mode, tries to tie some sort of touristy view of the city with his movie’s theme. Midnight In Paris was about Paris’s timelessness and its relation to Allen’s nostalgia obsession; Vicky Cristina Barcelona was about escapism and temptation; Match Point was about the class struggle, in England and everywhere. Woody’s in a good mood here, so To Rome With Love is mostly concerned with fame, or, to tie into Rome itself, one’s legacy and impact on the world. Woody’s covered fame before, never better than in Deconstructing Harry, but this film isn’t interested in going to any dark place like that movie: It just wants to have a little bit of fun and enjoy the scenery. Again: There are worse crimes.
4. The movie features four stories, all of which just sort of float along pleasantly without overtrying anyone’s patience. Two are more compelling than the others. In one, Roberto Benigni plays a normal, workaday fella who, inexplicably, one day becomes the intense focal point of the tabloid press and the paparazzi. Woody’s views on gossip and celebrity are less interesting here than the surrealism of the premise; there’s something undeniably funny about a gaggle of reporters interviewing Benigni while he brushes his teeth. (This is also the one segment of the film when Woody references Fellini on the late director’s home turf.) The other is a similarly fanciful bit, with Alec Baldwin as a successful sellout architect who advises his lovestruck protégé (Jesse Eisenberg, who should play all young Woody Allen romantic leads from here on out) who’s stuck between two women (Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig). It’s a familiar mentor role, but Baldwin and Eisenberg have real chemistry and deftness with Allen’s dialogue, and I sort of loved that, by the end of the movie, I wasn’t sure if either of them were imaginary, or both, or neither.
5. I’m probably overpraising a bit, though. (I am not always the most impartial observer here.) Much of the film is so inconsequential as to barely register whatsoever; a subplot featuring Woody acting for the first time in six years has a nice bit with an operatic shower singer but otherwise is bland and poorly paced, and Penélope Cruz’s vigor and Jessica Rabbit costuming can’t overcome the fact that her segment of the story would feel hoary and tired had it been made in 1940. But again: This is minor Woody. To Rome With Love is weightless and harmless and made with good cheer. That’s probably not much of a reason for you to see it. But when the muse isn’t around, this will do.
Grierson Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.