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Woody Allen is really coasting with his new movie To Rome With Love, a relaxed revisit of his earlier movies (and a couple of Federico Fellini's) staged before attractive Italian scenery. Younger viewers might find it enjoyable thanks to some always-welcome cast members; those of us who love Allen's pictures will probably indulge him. Woody plays a music producer who shows more creativity than our esteemed writer-director does in the movie overall. To Rome With Love has a good attitude and a pleasant setting, but it's lazy.
A traffic cop at work (Pierluigi Marchionne) introduces us to Rome, a city where life does not run on a timetable. Several unrelated stories play out in parallel. (1) Neurotic retiree Jerry and his tolerant wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) arrive, join their student daughter Hayley (Allison Pill) and meet her new boyfriend Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Jerry gets visions of a new career when he hears Michelangelo's father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) singing in the shower -- the man has a fantastic voice! (2) Famous architect John (Alec Baldwin) takes an afternoon off to locate the street where he lived thirty years before. He meets architecture student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig), and then offers Jack romantic advice when Sally's sexy actress friend Monica (Ellen Page) comes to stay for a spell. (3) Anonymous family man Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) suddenly wakes up famous for no reason, and undergoes a traumatic breaking-in period being mobbed by paparazzi and newsmen with inane questions. His sex life also changes, when a movie star and other women seek him out. Will Leopoldo and his family adjust to the weirdness of being famous for being famous? (4) Newlyweds from the sticks Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi & Alessandra Mastronardi) are separated just before he's due to meet important business contacts that could insure them a wealthy future. A farcical mix-up forces Antonio to pass off prostitute Anna (Penélope Cruz) as his wife, while Milly encounters a group of actors making a movie, including her favorite romantic idol.
To Rome With Love can't be faulted for its acting. Allen has always had the pick of Hollywood talent and so guarantees viewer interest with older veterans he likes (Alec Baldwin, Judy Davis) and younger established talent that he feels comfortable with -- Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Allison Pill. This being Italy, Roberto Benigni gets an episode practically to himself. Penélope Cruz is back as well. For a bankable international production Allen's film has all bases covered. Saving the film from total facial familiarity are a number of engaging Italian actors, filling in the smaller roles in Woody's Roman omnibus.
To Rome With Love has as its theme Italy and romance, which for Allen's purposes is mostly sexual attraction. When the traffic cop talks directly to the camera, we expect the film to continue as a playful romantic tour, as with the classic comedies of Ernst Lubitsch or the bittersweet dramas of Max Ophuls. No, the traffic cop makes a fast exit, to be replaced by a completely plastic time structure that edges into fantasy territory. Although told as if happening concurrently, one story takes place in an afternoon and others spread out over days and weeks. We first become aware of this when Leopoldo awakens to go to work for the second time, while poor lost Milly is still searching for a hair salon. The chances are that many viewers won't be bothered by this discrepancy, as there is no contact between the separate stories being told. Indeed, each stories belongs in a fantasy "world" of its own. When the traffic cop reappears for the finale, we almost expect him to say, "There are a million romantic stories in the Naked City, Rome... these have been four of them."
In interviews Allen has noted rather wistfully that his movies never made the quantum leap to the 'great cinema' he admired as a young man -- Bergman, Fellini, etc.. Thus he seems unconcerned by his re-telling of other people's movies. The story of Antonio and Milly contains almost the entire plot of Federico Fellini's early gem The White Sheik, in which identical provincial newlyweds come to Rome, and the naïve wife Brunella Bovo gravitates toward the handsome star of romantic photo-comics. Allen introduces Penélope Cruz's call girl to make the husband's situation even more awkward. Ms. Cruz enlivens the proceedings to no end, touring the Vatican in her working clothes and scaring half the executives at the lawn party -- all of whom seem to be her clients. (spoiler) But Allen throws away the character of the foolish new bride. Alessandra Mastronardi is so believably star-struck that we're concerned when she allows herself to be seduced by the famous actor. Because he wants to create a situation where both newlyweds cheat, Allen has her sleep with another man just for the fun of it. The turn of events rings false... Allen seemingly must resolve every story with sex.
Jesse Eisenberg's Jack feels guilty that he is tempted by his steady girl's best friend. We soon realize that Alec Baldwin's John is figuratively re-living his own amorous adventures at an early age ... most of the time he seems to be present as a semi-ghost figure, like Humphrey Bogart in Allen's own Play It Again, Sam. John decodes Monica's passive-assertive seduction technique, trying to convince Jack that the actress is toying with him, maneuvering him into thinking that something magic is occurring between them. This is potentially interesting, as the older John has the experience Jack lacks. For Woody Allen all Roman roads lead directly to sex... Allen may be the comic anti-matter correlative to French filmmaker Eric Rohmer, whose own tales of temptation invariably lead to a moral impasse.
The other two stories read like extended versions of Woody Allen New Yorker humor pieces, one-gag ideas embellished with more story points. Roberto Benigni's one-man show sees him playing an ordinary guy thrust into the limelight, where people ask him if he wears briefs or boxers and women he'd never hope to even speak to are suddenly crazy about sleeping with him. The bar is set very low for this episode, which Benigni tosses off effortlessly. We recognize the situation immediately, and simply wait for another nobody to depose the instant-celebrity Leopoldo. But the theme lacks resonance with reality. Practically all famous people have some talent or connection to greatness, and the phony folk famous only-for-being-famous are almost always intentionally self-manufactured. The press is crazy but it doesn't single out people for no reason at all. I hate to get back to basics, but the most important event in Leopoldo's moment of fame is bedding two beautiful women in one afternoon. I'd think Leopoldo would be more concerned about the loss of that VIP privilege, than being recognized in the street.
The Woody Allen segment is the only one that doesn't directly involve sex. Its premise is barely sufficient to keep a one-line joke afloat, and it isn't even funny. We all "sound good" singing in the shower, right? The singing mortician can only hit the right notes when he's in the shower, so.... and that's it. Giancarlo comes onstage with an enormous opera company, but the joke has been left behind four or five scenes before. We instead get some recycled Allen neurotic-speak, with Judy Davis playing backstop. Alison Pill, Allen's wonderful Zelda Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris, has little to do. To Rome With Love has its highlights -- Penélope Cruz, mainly -- but it only pretends to be a Valentine for Roman Romance.
Sony Pictures Classics' Blu-ray of To Rome With Love is a flawless encoding of this soothingly filmed romantic travelogue. Whether seen in cutaways or with the actors present, the various Roman landmarks and neighborhoods are gentle on the eyes. For a soundtrack Allen offers a fine selection of Italian standards, starting with Domenico Modugno's "Nel blu dipinto di blu", aka "Volare". Actor Fabio Armiliato is an actual noted opera star, so his tracks are genuine -- Armiliato even does a good job of flubbing an audition, and making it sound real.
The disc includes an EPK featurette. The movie is in English with a couple of brief passages in Italian, for which subtitles are provided.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
To Rome With Love Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.