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To Woody With (Tough) Love

Dear Woody Allen,

I will always be there for you. Stop punishing me for my loyalty!

Back in 1984 my older brother drove me to see Broadway Danny Rose. I don't remember why. I'll readily admit that much of the movie went over my head but I laughed and laughed at the helium scene. To this day it's the only thing I remember about the movie which I never saw again. (There were always new and old Woody Allens to see so there was little time to rewatch!). My brother laughed, too. The next year I cajoled my entire family into seeing The Purple Rose of Cairo -- even though they kept grumbling about you stealing the Oscar from Star Wars -- because it was about the movies and because you made it.

It was a turning point. I was already heading towards cinephilia but that blissful melancholy miniature classic handed me a map to get there quicker; my destiny was sealed. 

As a reward to you and a treat to myself I go to each and every Woody Allen movie in the theaters. For a good long time this ritual reaped enormous rewards and I rushed out on opening night. I learned to live with the occassional dud and I still rejoice when you have a success --  hello Midnight in Paris! Nice to know ya --  but as the balance began tipping towards the "uhhh" side of the quality scale, I got lazier about it. It's been quite some time since I rushed out on opening night. I still see them but the passion has gone out of the trip ... it's now something mundane, like a favor you'd automatically do for an old friend without ever considering saying "no." You've a lifetime pass.

And so it was when I hit To Rome With Love, your follow up to a resounding success that brought you your third Best Picture nomination! Talk about wasting your post-Midnight advantage...

Everyone was ready to love you again and you bring us this shapeless piffle?  Nothing about To Rome... feels fully formed. Did you write it on hotel napkins during breaks on the press tours for Midnight when your duties as a public figure aggravated you. Because aside from a half-assed satirical jab at the modern celebrity -- more of a satirical nudge really since there's no bite, nothing unites the stories and they seem to serve no purpose other than to be this year's Woody Allen movie. Stories don't have to connect of course but it helps if they resonate by their very proximity. They are happening in the same film. Just saying.

And the jokes. Remember that scene where Penélope Cruz's hooker is visiting the Sistine Chapel and the tourists are saying "can you imagine working on your back all day?" Penélope responds "I can." While it was happening I couldn't look away and I felt my spirit crashing in slow motion. 'No no he won't go there. It's too obvious. Too much of a groaner. He'll spin it so----NOOOoooooo he went there. Without artistry or spin or a funny reaction shot! Without anything but the groaner." Maybe I'm viewing the past with nostalgic rosy glasses, the very thing you warned us about in Midnight in Paris, but I don't think you ever would've lobbed that at us in such a dull way before.

I can't even talk about the Alec Baldwin character who begins the film as a real character only to then serve as an adult counterpoint to a younger self (?) to then morph into a invisible misogynist Greek chorus of sorts (?) without actually being physically there. Well, sometimes he's there and sometimes not. Is he real? Is he a fantasy? Is he the future? If he's a fantasy or the future why does he get an introduction scene? If he's real how is he invisible? Any which way he's useless because the idea isn't formed in any specific way... it's competing creative scribbles in a notebook with the writer never making any choices. Your characters have never had a problem being verbose and speaking their thoughts aloud. They do that here, too. But now there's just an extra person talking.

Your constant prolificness used to be a blessing. But lately it shows. Please do a second draft. I'm pleading with you! Take a year off. Do something differently lest we believe that your high quality efforts are now mere accidents, things you stumbled upon accidentally at the sweatshop Woody Allen Factory.


your concerned life long fan, Nathaniel.

P.S. Rehiring the perpetually underused Judy Davis was very smart and she's the saving grace of an otherwise dull disposable film. Please make her your new muse. Pedro already owns Penélope and Scarlett Johansson just wasn't funny enough and she's too busy Avenging now anyway.

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Reader Comments (21)

Agreed. Really felt like Woody was just writing for the tax credit this time.

I found the movie minimally entertaining, as I do with even Woody's worst movies, but wouldn't go out of my way to defend this one. More than half assed writing, bad performances, and the intercutting between the vignettes was pure amateur hour. Feel like the stories would have been much better served if they'd played out as four continuous segments - no intercutting.

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I have to disagree with you on this one! I am a Woody Allen devotee as much as you and I laughed my a@@ off watching "To Rome With Love". In fact, in a surprisingly full theater, everyone was laughing. Don't get me wrong "Midnight in Paris" is a superior film but in terms of sheer humor, TRWL has it beat.
Couple of notes from your review; why do we accept the magic of 'midnight in paris' but with alec baldwin jumping in and out of the action we're suddenly crying logic! If anything his character acts as the audience substitute. We've seen all these Woody Allen stereotypes (the nice girlfriend, the neurotic slut, the stuttering idiot) and Baldwin's character comments on that fact.
I could go on defending its merits, but I was pleasantly surprised and for a woody allen 'comedy' that was very nice.
P.S. Penelope Cruz's subtitles aren't very good, after the sistine chapel comment she actually says, "I can...perfect." Its a subtle difference.

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCurtis

Nice to know Davis' presence wasn't wasted.

About Woody: How come you're surprised by his disappointments, still? Maya Angelou says when someone tells you who they are believe them. Woody has said repeatedly he's casual and casually indifferent when he's making a movie — his favorite films generally are the ones that fail to meet base approval. I truly believe making a movie a year is keeping him alive and I rather he stay here that make another masterpiece comparable to standards set in the past.

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter4rtful

This must be oe of the saddest reviews I've read from you, written from the true disappointment of the lover who finally finds out what his lover was like all the time.

To me the good ones still compensate the bad ones. This review could've reflected my thoughts about Whatever Works a few years ago.

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

My two cents: I agree the execution is frequently slapdash, but I think there's actually a powerful autobiographical core to the film:

--the young married couple represents Allen as a young man, experimenting, celebrating the "mistakes" of his youth as indelible formative experiences, and emerging as a more confident, self aware individual

--the Baldwin segment is both Allen in dialogue with his own early work (Eisenberg & Page representing two sides of the Allen archtype) and a pure distillation of his core theme - the necessity of love, and how fleeting and fickle is;

-- the Begnigni segment is Allen's bemused reflection on his middle aged celebrity - the rush of fame, the pain of a scandalous fall, and then the rebuilding process ;

--and finally the opera singer segment - a defiant justification of his late career productivity, and an emphatic rebuttal to his critics - he does not make his movies for critics - he makes them for himself, and is happy.

In the guise of a frivolous travelogue, I'd argue Woody has actually smuggled a surprisingly clear eyed, unsentimental reflection on his life and career. It's hardly his most accomplished work, but I suspect that on further viewing it may prove to be an unusually rewarding one - and potentially a far more complex work than Midnight in Paris!

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereventsoccur

y concerns with this film were exactly how undeveloped it is. It’s as if he shot straight from a first draft that should have been severely revised and could have possibly turned into something exciting, instead of this disjointed touristic guide gone awry. I would say that the absurdism of each story is what makes the cohesion for the pretext to show all of them in one movie, and individually they’re mildly interesting stories (except for Ellen Page’s irritating character. I sooo hoped for one of those vaudevillian hooks to pull her off the screen. Ugh!!! Had he cut that whole story out he would have had a movie with a normal running time and slightly more decent movie).
The other thing is that Woody Allen himself considers that his films mediocre, no matter how great they are, so basically he’s conformed with anything he gives us. Let’s face it, he’s got absolutely no emotional attachment with anything he does. He treats his films like summer flings who he has no interest in calling or even seeing again. I simply hope for at least a few more accidental masterpieces during Woody’s lifetime. (See Woody Allen? You've made a conformist out of me as well, damn you!) :)

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCristhian

wait a second....judy davis as baby jane!

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpar3182

Judy Davis should be in everything, all the time, Woody needs to give her something monumental to do again.

Um and YES YES YES to the above post - par3182 - I was just about to suggest it myself! If anybody is in any doubt, go watch Judy chew the place apart as Sante Kimes in A Little Thing Called Murder.

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSally

Nat, you just put to writing my feelings about Woody's films from last decade. I was a fervent lover, so happy with a new Allen movie each year but now I just wish he takes his time and deliver. He never does anymore.

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSeisgrados

Not that I disagree with you Nathaniel but I still think that giving the Spider Man movie which is a remake of a remake of a remake a C and Woody's a D+ is just judging films with different measures. At least To Rome .. is an original script with a good cast and has some funny scenes.
Just sayin'...

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteradelutza

adelutza: He's railing against similar but different things. With the Spider-Man film, he's critiquing the studio's choice to do the overplayed origin story and familiar plot beats. With this, he's criticizing Woody Allen for becoming increasingly trite and half assed as a director, when he should know better. When Woody Allen's recent output could be said to be outclassed by WAR INC (a snide, empty, romantic chemistry free Grosse Pointe Blank retread), something has gone very wrong.

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Um...Scarlett was hilarious is Scoop! She was fantastic, and while you weren't sold on her performance in VCB, I actually found it best in show because she had a full handle on everything her character called for. She worked wonderfully in the universes that Woody created for her.

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

It doesn't open here in Montréal until next Friday!

Still, Nat, I don't know why you were surprised about Penelope Cruz's line...it was one of the biggest chuckles (from the crowd when seeing the trailer in the theatre) in the trailer...right up there with the bit about Alec Baldwin not understanding women.

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBill_the_Bear

Totally with you. Saw this last night and HATED it. Especially the Page/Eisenberg/Baldwin/Gerwig story.

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

Anyone else think Page was GROSSLY miscast? As in, maybe Gerwig and Page should have changed roles? I don't know that that would have made a difference anyway. That whole storyline was annoying. Not to mention the Roberto Benigni segment, which was insufferable to the point of making me question my will to live. Can we take back his Oscar? Why does Woody seem obsessed with focusing on younger folk? He isn't in touch with that generation. Focus on 40-/50- somethings! Oy. Anyway, I totally agree with you, Nathaniel, that Judy Davis IS the saving grace of the movie. More Judy please!

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie

Okay...I love Woody as well, but he is once again getting a free pass in the older man/younger woman department.

Judy Davis was born in 1955. Woody Allen was born in 1935...20 year gap: would he cast himself opposite, let's say Joan Fontaine or Celeste Holm, born in 1917? They are both less than 20 years older than Woody...

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

Patryk: Well, I think critics give him (and other similar stories) a pass there because most of them are fans of Harold and Maude and they don't want to come across as a bunch of nasty hypocrites.

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Charlie -- I wish the Academy could rectify some past decisions because THAT would be one of my top-10 picks.

He's a laughably bad actor, he basically just plays himself in 'La vitta è bella' and he gets rewarded with an Oscar?

I can't stand him ever since I found out that HE beat Ian McKellen's performance in Gods and Monsters AND Ed Norton being his awesome uncomfortable self in American History X and they preferred him to Jim Carrey (Truman Show), McGregor (Velvet Goldmine), Bridges (Big Lebowski), Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Clooney (Out of Sight) and Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love).


July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

Sorry, but I think a 20 year age difference is no big deal in either direction if the people are over, say, 35. That's not really the problem. The problem is he is a GREAT writer and director of women and particularly "older" women. Yes, okay, let's say 35ish, but women with children.

I really wish he'd go there. Someone needs to show him The Kids Are Allright and let him know what good comedy is about these days. Heck, he can even work in some sexy stuff while he's at it.

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Oh shoot, I forgot to say that Broadway Danny Rose is definitely absolutely worth seeing again. I think it's just a smidge beneath Purple Rose and it's really in the top half of his work. Besides, it will be nostalgically great.

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Agree with you Nathaniel on Judy Davis. She's the only reason I saw the film and she's grossly underutilized here. Why Woody would call her back for such a small part???? Woody needs to write for his age group and not for "20-somethings." As Dave said, he's a great writer and director of "older women." Woody needs to tap into his tried and true core of actresses from his prime (Diane Keaton, Judy Davis, Dianne Wiest).

July 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBJ
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