“TO ROME WITH LOVE” – 2 STARS

I’ve never been a big Woody Allen fan. But my appreciation for his filmmaking grew with last year’s amazing “Midnight in Paris”, a¬†fantastic film that was wonderfully written, genuinely funny, and purely magical. Allen’s European tour continue’s with “To Rome With Love” yet another romantic comedy taking place in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. “To Rome With Love” is a collage of individual stories about a number of different people and their relationships, their predicaments, and their quirks. It starts by capturing some of that same magic that made “Midnight in Paris” such a strong film but the second half of the¬†movie¬†runs off the rails and the result is an uneven and ultimately disappointing result.

The different unconnected stories battle for screen time and all start on the right track. In one, Haley (Allison Pill), an American tourist visiting Rome meets, falls in love with, and is soon engaged to a local hunk named Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). After her parents fly over to meet his parents, her father (Woody Allen), who compares his recent retirement to a premature death, thinks his career is rejuvenated¬†after discovering Michelangelo’s shower singing father (Fabio Armiliato). In another story, Roberto Benigni¬†plays a mundane and predictable husband and father who suddenly becomes the object of immense fame and notoriety over nothing more than what type of underwear he wears and how he likes his toast.

In yet another story Alec Baldwin plays John, a middle-aged architect back in Rome visiting the neighborhood where he once lived as a young man. He bumps into Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young architect living in Rome with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). Their relationship is strained when her best friend Monica (Ellen Paige) flies in to visit from the states. John follows Jack around everywhere sounding off warnings about his budding relationship with the flakey Monica. And then there are the reserved small-town newlyweds (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) who arrive in Rome where the husband hopes to get a job from his wealthy family. Through several off-the-wall events, the two are separated in the city and each find their love for the other challenged by the people they meet including a  prostitute played by Penelope Cruz. This was easily the weakest story of the four.

These four storylines stay within their own individual walls and they never intersect with each other. As I mentioned they each start strong and Allen packs a lot of good laughs particularly the first half of the movie. At first I really thought Allen was doing something clever and crafty with the four stories. The film addresses an interesting array of issues and the characters are actually quite¬†intriguing up to a point. But things begin to slowly turn sour and not only does Allen’s story¬†fly wildly out of control but many of his characters become pretty pathetic individuals¬†who depict the movie’s warped and cynical view of love, devotion, and relationships. Several of the characters are faced with sexual temptations and ultimately fall prey¬†to them, some with almost no meaningful struggle of conscience. Other storylines become preposterous which is ok if you’re going somewhere with it.¬†And while¬†I definitely laughed at some of the over-the-top gags, keeping my loosely attached interest intact ¬†hinged on the idea that Woody was doing more with these self-indulgent characters and outlandish situations than what we were seeing. As it turns out he really wasn’t.

As I’m sure you noticed, Allen still has a knack for attaching great talent to his productions. There’s not a bad performance in the entire film and the actors almost pull it off even when the material goes south. Woody Allen himself delivers some of the film’s biggest laughs while portraying the same neurotic and pessimistic character as in his other roles. Speaking of neurotic, but on a much smaller scale, I also really enjoyed Eisenberg’s performance as well. But the biggest star of the film may be the city of Rome itself. Allen truly has an affection for Rome and he goes to great lengths to show its history, beauty, and romantic charm. While Rome certainly doesn’t take on main character¬†status as Paris did in “Midnight in Paris”, it’s¬†still¬†a key ingredient in giving the movie the romantic vibe its shooting for. In fact, for me the movie loses most of its sense of romance with the exception of the charming city that’s present in almost every scene. Even when I was growing detached from the stories, Allen’s camera would capture a location in Paris that sucked me back in.

“To Rome With Love” is truly a story of two halves. The first half of the movie was an absolute blast even though some of the four stories were more interesting than others. But in the second half of the movie I sat in the theater noticing that I hadn’t laughed in some time. As I slowly lost interest in the characters I began noticing that Allen really wasn’t going anywhere with the film. There’s no clever or memorable twist. It spits and sputters to its finale and by the end I was asking myself how Allen could have made two halves so totally different. I also wasn’t all that interested in Allen’s seemingly loose ideas of love, fidelity,¬†and trustworthiness and in this case it hollowed out his characters with the exception of those in Haley and Michelangelo’s story. For some, the spectacular location and the number of funny moments will be enough to carry the picture. But for me it was terribly uneven and it ends up tearing down everything it itself creates. In fact, “To Rome With Love” feels like a film that needed another year of writing and production. The rushed results were nothing short of disappointing.

“THE VOW” – 1 1/2 STARS

Some movies are released that really leaves me scratching my head. I ask myself “How on Earth did this movie get made?” Such was the case with “The Vow”, yet another poorly acted and poorly written entry in the hurting romantic comedy genre. I was honestly dumbfounded that “The Vow” saw the light of day. But after seeing the movie rake in almost $200 million worldwide, I was reminded that there is an audience for this type of shallow and unoriginal storytelling.

“The Vow” offers nothing original. It almost¬†comes across as¬†a slightly better looking mid-day soap opera. Tell me if you’ve heard this before. Leo (Channing Tatum) and Paige (Rachel McAdams) are a happy young married couple. While heading home after a movie the two are involved in a car accident. Paige is thrown from the car and experiences severe head trauma. As she recovers, Leo stays by her side waiting for her to regain consciousness. When she does, as you can probably guess, she has amnesia and doesn’t recognize Leo. Yes, they really went there.

Things are complicated when her parents enter the mix. In pre-amnesia times, Paige’s relationship with her parents was nonexistent. They use her memory loss as an opportunity to jump back into her life. This pits them against Leo in an attempt to win her affection while she struggles to remember her old life. Throw in Scott Speedman as Jeremy, her ex-fiancee who she split up with prior to meeting Leo. Of course he wants back in¬†her life¬†and sees Paige’s memory loss as his ticket in.

Most of problems with “The Vow” can be traced back the shoddy writing. There’s not one single character mentioned above that feels authentic. They are all paper-thin versions of characters we’ve seen so many times before. The movie hinges upon the love between Paige and Leo. Unfortunately I never bought into them as a couple. Their dialogue is so silly and tripe and neither of the performers are believable. A lot of people like Channing Tatum as an actor but I’m still not sold on him. He delivers so many flat, stone-faced lines and I often found myself laughing at scenes not intended to be funny. McAdams tries her best but the material she is given is so incredibly slight and superficial.

There are instances where “The Vow” teases you into thinking it’s going in a more unconventional directions. But that’s never the case. Sure the ending isn’t the straightforward run-of-the-mill mush that we usually see, but it’s also not enough to save the film which labors from start to finish. Weak material and Tatum’s poor lead performance end up killing the movie before it even gets going. So I find myself again lamenting the status of the romantic comedy, a genre that I actually like but that is bombarded with poor movie after poor movie. But I guess as long as people keep paying money to see them, this is what we can expect.

“VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA” – 2 STARS

Many critics touted “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” as Woody Allen’s return to quality filmmaking after a few clear misses. I have to say I was with them, at least for the first half of the film. But that’s when Allen’s story started to undo everything I had bought into. His sharp locational eye beautifully captures the Spanish architecture and countryside and his good-looking characters lay the groundwork for a promising story. But the movie is never as funny or as clever as it tries to be and it ultimately¬†falls apart in its nonsensical third act.

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a romantic comedy that takes a rather cynical look at romance. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and her friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are spending the summer in Barcelona. Vicky holds what you might call a more traditional look at relationships. She is grounded, sure of what she wants, and engaged to a preppy young business man back home. Cristina is somewhat of a free spirit, prone to dive into love and life headfirst regardless of the consequences. One of the more compelling things about the friends is that they are so opposite at first. Hall and Johansson have some great moments together bouncing their own perspectives and idiosyncrasies off each other. They start off as genuinely interesting and believable best friends.

Their summer takes an interesting¬†turn when they meet Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), a struggling artist who invites the girls to spend the weekend with him in the city of Oviedo. Vicky is against the idea but Cristina sees it as intriguing. The stronger spirit wins out and the three take off. Over the weekend the relationships between the three grow more complex.¬†But things go from complex to nutty when Juan Antonio’s¬†neurotic ex-wife Mar√≠a Elena (Penelope Cruz) enters the picture. All four of the main stars are fantastic. Cruz, who won the Best Supporting Actress for the role, gives the movie some energy just as it was starting to lag. But even she is undermined by Allen’s off-the-wall final act which seems to make everything earlier feel disingenuous.

For me the biggest casualty of Allen’s uneven story is the unique difference between Vicky and Cristina. By the end of the film I didn’t feel that were that unique at all. Even when Cristina becomes involved in an absurd love triangle, the Vicky character, who I thought was more grounded and level-headed,¬†responds in a way that seemed inconsistent with who she has been. Some may attribute that to an evolution of her character but I think the movie goes on to show that she isn’t as deep of a character as she appears to be at first. I also didn’t find the film nearly as funny as others. Sure it has a few dry quirky moments, but it’s real attempt at humor falls flat particularly in the second half of the film. This truly is a tale of two movies in one.

Some have felt the movie promotes the pursuit of love and happiness and the idea that romance may be fleeting but it’s worth the effort. I feel it looks at love through a very pessimistic and sometimes skewed lens. There’s no denying that “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a beautiful movie. The gorgeous Barcelona sights and sounds and the attention to the culture creates the perfect environment for what could have been. For me “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” wasn’t the summer to remember. Although it might have been if the second half of the film was as good as the first.