Monday, July 30, 2012

To Rome with Love Movie Review

Woody Allen continues his new millennium tour of Europe with a jaunt to Rome in his latest comedy, To Rome with Love. Perhaps after churning out a movie a year like clockwork for the last 30 odd years, Woody finally tired of New York City as a setting for contemporary stories of relationships and intellectualism. Though the backdrop has shifted recently from London to Barcelona to Paris and now the Eternal City, the signature wit has remained. It hasn’t always worked well but I’m glad that he put out one more fine film in Midnight in Paris before the inevitable end of Woody. To Rome with Love is a bit of a letdown after last year’s wonderful fantasy.

Woody ties together four separate vignettes that have loose thematic links. Perhaps not coincidentally, Midnight in Paris could almost fit in as a fifth vignette. I wonder if he had several ideas mulling around all centering on the price of fantasy and fame and chose the best one to develop into a full length feature while the other four were relegated to glorified short film status and plopped together in To Rome with Love.

Although the four vignettes are intercut with one another, seemingly playing out concurrently, there is no crossover from one to the other. No characters from one story appear in any other. Allen’s choice of structure creates a bit of confusion as one story must take place through the course of a single day while others are spread over several days or even weeks. By cutting between the four I was often left scratching my head as to how and if the stories were connected and I felt a sense of temporal flux by the lack of a cohesive timeline.

Allen makes his first screen appearance since Scoop in 2006 as Jerry, the father of a young woman living in Rome. He travels with his wife (Judy Davis, making her first appearance in a Woody Allen film since 1997). Their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill) is dating Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Allen knows how to paint characters with broad strokes and Michelangelo is no exception. He is the epitome of a young European socialist who loves to make off the cuff remarks about the plight of the working man and the inherent goodness of labor unions. Jerry has little patience for it and the two butt heads, especially on the subject of Michelangelo’s father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato). Giancarlo turns out to have a spectacular voice for opera, a talent that is sort of hilariously only possibly to display while showering (this has something to do with the combination of warm water and soap). Jerry, an opera producer, sees great opportunity to stage a rather unorthodox production of Pagliacci. This makes for one of the most absurdly funny scenarios in a Woody Allen movie since he played a character who accidentally becomes the dictator of a fake Latin American country.

In one of the other three vignettes there’s Roberto Benigni as an ordinary working man who is suddenly and inexplicably thrust into the spotlight one morning with reporters crowding around his house begging to know how he likes his toast and what his shaving technique. It’s a transparent commentary on fleeting celebrity and the perils of the 24 hour news cycle and the public’s obsession with people who are famous for being famous. I kept thinking of the vapidity of people’s interest in the likes of Paris Hilton and the Kardashians and the way magazines report on their every move as if it’s of any value. After several days of exposure under the microscope, he wants the madness to stop. But then when the reporters are interested in someone else he finds he misses the attention. Such is the psyche of many a celebrity who enjoyed a little more than 15 minutes.

The third features a young newlywed couple moving to Rome to start a new life and a series of mishaps has the young bride (Alessandra Mastronardi) lost in the confusing streets of the city while her husband (Alessandro Tiberi), in a classic bedroom farce scenario has to pass off a prostitute (Penélope Cruz) to some relatives as his new wife. The fourth has the greatest potential to have been developed further, but is constrained by the film’s structure. It has Alec Baldwin as an architect on holiday with his wife and another couple. He gets to reminiscing about his youth when he spent a semester studying in Rome. A walk through his old neighborhood has him encounter his younger alter-ego (Jesse Eisenberg) to whom he attempts to dispense the advice he never got, but could have used in the past. Greta Gerwig plays Eisenberg’s girlfriend and Ellen Page her best friend come to visit and attract his wandering eye. Page’s character is full of it, according to Baldwin, who continually advises Eisenberg not to give up what he has with Gerwig for the momentary pleasure of being with someone who’s a self-involved con-artist.

The connections between the four stories are tenuous enough that it feels like Allen just threw together several half-formed story ideas he’d been working on. Fame is a thematic element in both the Allen and Benigni stories and is a background presence in the Baldwin one. The main unifying theme is that of fulfilling a fantasy: spending a day with a sexy seductress; becoming an instant celebrity; becoming an overnight opera star (but really that story is Allen’s character’s fantasy of producing a visionary opera); meeting your younger self to steer him in the right direction.

But even if the four stories had an obvious overarching connecting thread and if the film weren’t confusingly edited, it would still contain laughs that are few and far between. This is not classic Woody Allen a la Annie Hall or even his last effort. This is lazy, puts out a film every year for the sake of tradition Woody Allen. It’s a middling success, not even bad enough to trash completely, but lacking in true creative vision.

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