A personal debate was which film deserved last year’s Best Picture Academy Award? And after analyzing the three top contenders (HUGO/THE ARTIST/MIDNIGHT IN PARIS), MIDNIGHT was my ultimate winner. With that in mind I tempered my expectations for TO ROME WITH LOVE, Woody Allen’s latest release, a welcome gift in the middle of the blockbuster summer period.
TO ROME WITH LOVE involves loosely connected storylines. Allen expressed that he was approached to set/shoot a film in Rome, Italy ("the Eternal City"), so he did. The film opens and closes with a “person about the city” character speaking directly to the audience. This immediately sets the stage for the reflexive techniques Allen uses throughout, primarily through the Alec Baldwin character, John, an advisor to one of the main characters.
The four vignettes, all set in Rome, are as follows: a young architect student (Jesse Eisenberg) in a committed, seemingly happy relationship is now torn by his forewarned (Alec Baldwin as a sage/guide and Greek chorus) attraction to the nubile, flighty, cute, actress friend (Ellen Page) of his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) who is now staying with them temporarily. Chaos ensues in the witty land of love, lust, and doomed relationships.
Secondly – is the Italian everyman (Robert Benigni in a well-cast turn) who suddenly finds his mundane life turned into “must see” reality TV. A familiar and wholly welcome Allen treatise on fame and celebrity commences. With hits and misses throughout.
The third storyline interjects the visiting to Rome by a Mother (Judy Davis – mostly ill utilized as silent "straight man") and Father (Woody Allen) of a bride to be who is marrying a politically fervant Italian guy (Flavio Parenti) whose own common man Father (Fabio Armiliato), a mortician to be exact, turns out to have an angelic, Opera worthy tenor voice - although there is one comical catch. Probably the most humorous of the four, it begins a bit obligatory as I couldn’t shake Woody being Woody, but slowly his retired, music/opera producer character and the story become an unexpected asset, even if it runs too long – a continual negative of the film.
The fourth story has a young newlywed couple (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) traveling from their humble town to Rome for an important family/business meeting which could set them up for a upscale lavish lifestyle if all goes well, of course it doesn’t - as through a comedy of errors, a sent prostitute (Penelope Cruz – trying her best to do something with nothing) is mistaken as and forced to play the part of the guy’s wife. If that weren’t enough, his wife, while traversing through Rome looking for a beauty salon, stumbles upon a film set and her favorite actor (Antonio Albanese ), who like Dorothy swept away to Oz, takes her into his celebrity and fan obsessed world where her flowered jewel becomes his ultimate obsession. Hilarity ensues.
If this at all sounds confusing, don’t let it, as the film’s structure smoothly weaves each of the stories together. Definitely a plus for the film is this able interweaving.
As a stand-alone film and judged on its own merits, TO ROME may be considered more a hit than miss. Yet anyone well-versed in Allen’s work will have these observations on the film’s pros and cons:
The film utilizes many of Rome’s iconographic locales and backdrops with Allen panache (kudos Darius Khondji, ASC).
The film is ultimately uneven in tone. TO ROME actually wastes the talents of both Judy Davis and Penelope Cruz (the Oscar winner reduced to sex object and I would have liked to see an Italian cast in this role for authenticity). One noted weakness is how many characters are thinly drawn (lack depth), thus we barely register their names. Either way, the cast does mostly well as par usual Allen films.
Even an Allen miss is usually a fun cinematic ride. The absurdist-farcical humor is one of the film’s strengthens.
The film slyly alludes to important Italian filmic names and poignantly reveals a treasure trove of Italian cinematic stars of the past and present.
Allen’s continued attack-rumination on fame/celebrity while funny, has been better served in his other films such as – Celebrity, Stardust, Deconstructing, Midnight, others. Other Allen obsessions and motifs are abundant: Love/Romance, Reality/Fantasy-Surrealism, Freudian concepts/Conscience/Id-Ego, Battle of the Sexes, male dissonance of the Madonna/Whore complex, Prostitutes, the Artist and artistic pursuits, amongst a few others.
TO ROME is somewhat forced, dated, and suffers from a repetitive and banal quality, yet, even if considered a pseudo-intellectual lesson, Allen and Godard films both past and present are still at the fore of what academic cinema can be. There are some real gems here both intellectually and humorously. And the continuously persistent artistic query arises: has Allen’s move away from his beloved New York City reinvigorated his artistic spirit? Audiences now have this interesting question to debate.
© by Julian Boyance, July 6th 2012
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