The release of a new Woody Allen film is a special event in the sense that each breath is a special event; we’re used to them, we assume the next one isn’t far behind, and the very best ones follow periods of unfulfilling gasps. Their constant stream has also become a handy reminder for us all that we are indeed still alive, and the philosophy-loving Allen should feel flattered that Descartes’ dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” could be supplanted by the equally appropriate, “Woody’s still making movies, so we probably still exist.”
To Rome With Love follows in the footsteps of his biggest ever box-office hit, Midnight in Paris, for which he received yet another Best Original Screenplay Oscar. It may seem cynical for him to follow up that flick with one filmed in another European locale and with four times as many fantastical scenarios. However, the knowledge that he is usually working on the next project before the last one has even been released, and that each script is often based on ideas scribbled-out decades earlier, should quiet any concerns of Woody potentially ‘selling-out.’
Allen and Judy Davis reunite as the parents of a young American (Alison Pill) who has fallen for the left-wing son of a Roman mortician (Fabio Armiliato). Alec Baldwin stars as the older version of Jesse Eisenberg, reflecting on the time in his youth when he strayed from his reliable girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and fell for her flighty actress friend (Ellen Page). Penelope Cruz plays a prostitute mistaken for the wife of a nervy small-town boy (Alessandro Tiberi) when his actual bride (Alessandra Mastronardi) loses herself in the city. And Life is Beautiful‘s Roberto Benigni makes his triumphant (well, maybe not triumphant) return as a middle-class bore who inexplicably wakes up one day the most famous man in Italy.
It’s a melange of disparate stories that never intertwine; whose only connective tissue is their setting. Time is elastic – the tales either take place over one day or across several weeks, or perhaps exclusively in the characters’ minds – and the only reality that Allen conforms to is that of traditional Italian farce (the hiring of modern-day Arlecchino Benigni should indicate as much). Not everything works; the sexual misunderstandings and miscalculations involving Eisenberg, Page, and Gerwig, as well as Cruz, Tiberi, and Mastronardi are neither surprising nor do they pay-off with chaotic climactic confrontations.
The two most cartoonish threads provide the biggest laughs. Benigni is genuinely appealing (for the first time in a long time) as the exasperated everyman suddenly celebrated for reasons he cannot comprehend. Best of all is Allen himself, who the audience still receives so warmly, as a retired music producer eager to make a comeback with the help of his golden-voiced in-law. The catch? He can only sing when in the shower. All this leads to a staging of Pagliacci in which famed tenor Armiliato must perform in front of an audience half-nude and lathered up. This is what people do for Woody Allen.
To Rome With Love is one of those underwhelming efforts of his that disappoints everybody because it’s not a masterpiece, but is still better than any other romantic comedy out at the same time. It’s his broadest in a number of years, though never as hilarious as his early comic pieces. I wish Allen had avoided the ensemble route and taken just one of his multitude of ideas, preferably the ‘shower singing’ one, and produced a full-length feature based on that alone. Then, he could have waited until the next picture to deploy Benigni in a full-on commedia dell’arte revival. As it stands, it’s a movie of moments – some great, some good, some flat out bad – just as Allen’s career has been made up of moments too.
To Rome With Love arrives in Australian cinemas October 18, 2012.