By Michael Calleri
Say what you will about director Woody Allen, and he does have his detractors, the man continues to prove that when it comes to making movies, he knows how to get it done. Allen has been releasing a feature a year since 1982’s “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.” Astonishingly, in four of those years he’s had two entries, although some were short films.
1987 saw two full-length works, “Radio Days” and “September.” In 1989 there were “Crimes And Misdemeanors” and “Oedipus Wrecks,” which was a 35-minute comedic short as part of the feature “New York Stories.” The other directors contributing are Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. In 1994, Allen directed the delightful “Bullets Over Broadway” and a television movie, “Don’t Drink The Water.” 2001 saw “The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion” and a short, “Sounds From The Town I Love,” which was shown as part of a special television documentary “The Concert For New York City.”
Allen’s harshest critics say that his movie-a-year pace dissipates his talent and results in too many weak and failed films. I disagree. I am a complete and total fan of his motion pictures and believe that there are no weak or failed Woody Allen movies, just major and minor works, and frankly, I don’t think there are that many minor efforts in his canon. For me, there is always something of merit to be gleaned from an Allen movie. He has a distinctive directing style and there are always matters of substance to discover and appreciate in is writing.
For starters, his films are exquisitely-made, with cinematography and production values that are as good as can be; many times approaching greatness. I think of his films as cinematic short stories and eagerly await each new work. As with all superior artists, Allen has themes that he enjoys exploring. I don’t see that as a negative. I enjoy discovering how he puts a new spin on something familiar. By the way, if you want to watch three Allen features that I consider wildly underrated but completely delightful, see “Sweet And Lowdown,” “Small Time Crooks,” and “Hollywood Ending.”
Allen’s 2012 movie is “To Rome With Love,” and it arrives instantly diminished by the success of the great “Midnight In Paris” from 2011. The latter was not an aberration in the director’s career. He’s made a lot of great films. To judge his newest picture based on the success of his previous work is unfair and an example of lazy criticism. Each movie stands alone. It’s true that “To Rome With Love” is not “Midnight In Paris.” But it doesn’t have to be.
“Midnight In Paris” takes that exciting and alluring city and pairs it with a dreamer (Owen Wilson’s Gil) whose fantasy is to be part of a literary and artistic past he considers magical and the world considers historic. The film creates a mood and elevates it to levels rarely seen in American romantic comedies.
“To Rome with Love” is more Woodyesque, more typical of his Manhattan-based movies with their myriad angst-ridden characters and all of their foibles. What it especially shares with “Midnight In Paris” is Darius Khondji’s lush cinematography, which gives a beautiful glow to the fabled attractions of both capital cities. Allen has been criticized for his tourist-eyed take on both places, especially the Rome-set film, with some reviewers claiming he’s presenting nothing more than moving postcards. I’ve got news for these naysayers. Go around any corner in Paris and Rome, walk down any street, and almost everything really does look like a postcard.
With only one break, Allen, always the inveterate New Yorker, has been making movies in Europe since 2005’s superb “Match Point.” That was set in London as were “Scoop,” “Cassandra’s Dream,” and “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger.” Then there’s “Vicki Cristina Barcelona,” set in Spain and the aforementioned “Midnight In Paris.” In the middle of these is “Whatever Works,” from 2009, which is set back in Allen’s beloved Manhattan.
With his Roman adventure, Allen pays tribute to the multi-director, multi-story comedies that the Italians at Rome’s renown Cinecitta Studios were producing in the early 1960s, works such as “Divorce, Italian Style” and “Boccaccio ‘70.” These movies contained three or four stories about love and marriage, existing separately, generally connected only by the title. In “To Rome With Love,” Allen offers a quartet of stories, but he takes a different approach to how they are linked together.
Literal minded moviegoers may be confused by Allen’s non-linear technique. In fact, his structure is driving some people nuts. Although his four tales seem to be taking place at the exact same time in Rome, they are not. Allen, who, as usual, wrote the screenplay, mixes his stories together. They occur over different time periods: an afternoon, a couple of days, even a few months. It’s the blending that is discomforting to some.
After an introduction from a traffic cop in Rome’s hyper-busy Piazza Venezia, where multiple streets merge, basically creating an asphalt plate of spaghetti, we are brought into four stories and meet the characters.
In one, an average Italian family man (Roberto Benigni) will have his life turned upside-down after the paparazzi decides he’s somebody famous. In another, a young married couple from the provinces (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi), in Rome to meet the groom’s extended family, become separated, and he ends up in the unwanted but persistent company of a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) and his bride is taken to lunch by a famous Italian movie star.
The third story involves an American architecture student (Jesse Eisenberg), his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig), her newly-arrived actress friend (Ellen Page) and a famous American architect (Alec Baldwin). The fourth tale features Woody Allen and Judy Davis as parents of an impressionable young woman visiting Rome (Alison Pill) who falls for a handsome student (Flavio Parenti) whose mortician father (Fabio Armiliato) has a stunning operatic voice that is effective only when singing in the shower.
This is Allen’s first acting role since 2006’s “Scoop,” and he revisits the nervous, fidgety, sometimes paranoid character that has served him so well. He still gets off some good zingers, nicely matched by Davis. The main joke of their segment is the opera-singing mortician, which is enhanced by the fact that Allen plays an opera director with a hit and miss career. He is noted most for his modern staging of great works, including a version of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” with the entire cast dressed as white mice. He realizes that the mortician can be famous if he can just get him into a concert hall.
Allen’s look at how Benigni’s office-working Everyman has his life disrupted when, for an explicable reason, he becomes a much sought-after idol of Italian society reaps big laughs. This is Allen’s satirical thrust against reality television shows, and it has bite, wit, and a delightful performance from Benigni. If you thought you never wanted to see him again after his chair-hopping antics at the Academy Awards in 1997 when he won for best actor in “Life Is Beautiful,” think again.
All of the tales in “To Rome With Love” are linked by the adulation of celebrities and a desire to be close to someone famous. In the story involving the young married couple, after the new bride loses her cell phone and becomes lost on the confusing streets of Rome, she comes upon a movie set. Almost immediately, the star of the picture, a portly fiftysomething lothario, who is blessed with charm but is not particularly handsome, decides that he will dazzle her with his fame. They end up in a hotel room, which leads to comic complications.
Meanwhile the bride’s husband is accompanied during the day by Cruz’s stubborn hooker after a case of mistaken identity. She won’t take “no” for an answer. His family has money, and the relatives he is to meet are socially connected to some important people. The acting in this segment is especially good. The bewildered relatives are suitably stiff and proper, the groom is sweetly flustered, and the prostitute takes it all in with good cheer.
There is one weak link in the film, which prevents it from being a truly outstanding Allen ensemble work. That’s the story involving older architect Baldwin and the young architecture student Eisenberg. After a serendipitous meeting on a perfect Roman backstreet, with its cobblestones and hanging vines and ochre-colored buildings, Baldwin becomes Eisenberg’s muse in matters-of-the-heart. This is the story that extends over a long period of time, and Baldwin is always in Eisenberg’s head whenever romance is discussed. In fact, the older, successful man seems to be reliving his youth when he was a university student in Rome.
Eisenberg’s character appreciates his girlfriend, but when her actress friend (Page) shows up, his thought will drift to the possibility of a sexual interlude with the newcomer. Baldwin advises against it and calls her a pretentious Hollywood phony. He says that getting involved with her would be like walking into a propeller.
Who actually sees Baldwin depends on which character needs to react to what he says. And sometimes, even if a person has previously seen him, there’s no guarantee that the person will see him in subsequent scenes. This hampers the flow of the storyline, which isn’t that strong anyway. It also doesn’t work as well as it should primarily because Baldwin is such a talented actor, so excellent at being sardonic, that he overwhelms everyone else in his scenes. It doesn’t help that the bland Eisenberg and the wispy Page both deliver uninteresting line readings and are certainly miscast. Page’s character is supposed to be a force-of-nature, a sexy take-charge type. She fails at that. Eisenberg is just plain dull. Their characters are cut from the same nervous intellectual, confused romantic cloth as many of the men Woody Allen has played in his films. Neither Eisenberg nor Page get the patter down correctly. It is amusing to note that in “To Rome With Love,” you get three Woodys for the price of one.
Overall, the entertaining movie is beautiful to look at, with nice and peppy musical choices, and some strong comic payoffs. Benigni and the opera singer especially score high. Allen is not treading water here. He continues to succeed where he must.
I refuse to join the crowd carping about his intellectualism or his work habits. There are actually some fools in the anti-Allen cabal criticizing him for being old and for making too many movies. Some think he’s isolated and out-of-touch with contemporary times. Believe me, if Allen is anything, it isn’t out-of-touch. He clearly has energy to spare. His fresh and funny and enjoyably smart films are a welcome breath of fresh air in a foul-mouthed cinematic atmosphere.
And as noted, he hasn’t equaled “Midnight In Paris,” but that’s okay. “To Rome With Love” is a different kind of film, with different feelings and different goals. But it’s still well worth-seeing.