The wide disparity in quality between Woody Allen's best and worst films leads us to the Pet Monkey Theory of Allen criticism, which postulates that the writer-director has a pet monkey, which has learned to type and which cranks out about half the screenplays scripts that Allen goes ahead and films anyway, because he likes to hang out with actors.
By this reckoning, for example, "Midnight in Paris" was clearly written by Allen himself.
"To Rome With Love" was written by the monkey.
I don't believe in the Pet Monkey Theory, because Allen's best and worst have too strong a family resemblance not to have been written by the same person. And yet the differences are extreme. It's not merely that "To Rome With Love" has the usual overarching problems characteristic of a weak effort, such as problems of story, theme or character. It's often inept, moment to moment.
Even basic things are wrong. Two characters meet by accident in a certain unusual way. Then later, two other characters meet by accident in a similar way. And both incidents feel perfunctory. Scenes go haywire and hang together only by the actors digging in their fingernails. Punch lines have no punch. Other jokes have setups with no punch lines at all. The movie plays like a bad first draft of something, but maybe that's the way Allen needs to work, to let it flow and see what happens.
Yet here's what's strange: As awful as "To Rome With Love" is and the awfulness is unmistakable it is, as an experience, not unpleasant. You will probably see several better movies this year that you will enjoy less. It's a mess, but it's Rome. It's a mess, but it's Woody Allen.
At this point, Allen has made so many films that to watch a new one, especially one in which he appears, is to re-experience the previous ones. So when we see him in his first scene in "To Rome With Love," on a plane flying through turbulence, a hundred previous associations make us get ready to laugh. Judy Davis is sitting next to him, as his wife that, in itself, is almost funny, too and he tells her that he has a hard time dealing with turbulence because "I'm an atheist."
Yes, that's a good-enough line on its own, but backed by more than 40 years of associations, it's better.
"To Rome With Love" interweaves several distinct stories, and for the first 15 minutes a viewer might reasonably wonder how Allen plans to join these stories together. In fact, the stories remain disparate sketches, cut into pieces and shuffled.
Allen himself is in the best one, as a former opera director who accidentally discovers a great operatic tenor but one who can sing only in the shower.
The worst segment, plagued by awkward writing, involves Alec Baldwin, as a man who meets what might be his younger self (Jesse Eisenberg) and tries to steer him away from a dangerous femme fatale. Ellen Page, in a case of inexplicable casting, plays the femme fatale.
Still, there are worse things to look at than Rome and worse worlds to inhabit than Woody Allen's. If you think about "To Rome With Love" not as a movie but as what Woody did on his Italian vacation, you might be able to like his latest without illusions.
TO ROME WITH LOVE
Cast: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Ellen Page, Greta Gerwig and Roberto Benigni. In English and in Italian with English subtitles. Director: Allen
Rated R (sexual references)