All right, I know it isn’t cool for a middle-aged feminist to patronize Mr. Allen’s films. But, personal life aside, he is something of a New York institution.
So, back to my analogy. New York is known for its fabulous pizza, and the competition is fierce. There are dozens of variations on Ray’s Pizza alone (Ray’s, Famous Ray’s, Original Ray’s, World Famous Ray’s . . .). And there’s John’s Pizza on Bleecker Street, which Allen featured in Manhattan 33 years ago. Any New Yorker worth his or her salt will have a definite opinion on which of the city’s estimated 2,000 pizzerias is the best—and will defend it to the grave. The thing is, great pizza in New York is great. But good pizza in New York is . . . well . . . also great. Even mediocre pizza in New York is pretty great. And, while you can relish the great, you can still enjoy the good and the mediocre. Pizza is still pizza.
This is how I feel about Woody Allen and his latest filmic postcard from Europe, To Rome with Love.
Continuing a trend that has already taken him to London, Barcelona, and Paris, Allen packed up his little movie crew and took over Roma. Part of the allure, according to interviews with the director, was that he could make more movies for less money. Allen claims that he can’t afford to shoot in his hometown anymore. He was also being pressured (in a good way) by his Italian distributors. But, from the very first frame of the film, when we meet a philosophical traffic poliziotto, we are assured that Allen is going to give us a genuinely affectionate portrait of the “Eternal City.”
To Rome with Love is a comedic omnibus, a collage of stories. Two are in English and follow the misadventures of Americans; the other two are in Italian with English subtitles. The stories are cut together, but never actually interconnect. And, as he did so cleverly in Midnight in Paris, Allen bends time to suit his vision. One story takes place in a single day, while others play out over days, weeks, and months.
The least weighty but in some aspects most cohesive tale is of a Roman Everyman, portrayed by modern clown and Oscar winner Roberto Benigni, who inexplicably wakes up to find himself “famous for being famous.” The paparazzi hound him morning, noon, and night; supermodels lure him into bed; he cannot escape the eyes and cameras of the world. He is in a sort of befuddled misery until the media moves on to its next phenomenon, and he realizes (too late) that while being famous doesn’t make you happy, it’s still better than not being famous.
The other Italian story is a semisweet bedroom farce with a setup right out of commedia dell’arte. Young newlyweds Milly and Antonio, both fresh-faced and naïve, arrive from the country. They are there to impress Antonio’s conservative relatives and build a future together in the big city. When Milly gets lost looking for a hair salon, Antonio ends up passing a call girl (a fiery Penelope Cruz) off as his new bride. Meanwhile, Milly ends up in her own romantic tangle with a screen idol and a hotel burglar. Mistaken identity, risqué trysts, a handful of stock characters . . . it all adds up to its fully anticipated sweet and happy ending.
The director himself appears in one of the other stories (his first role since 2006). I was surprised to see that at 76, Allen still looks basically the same. I think it’s because he’s been portraying a neurotic old man for so many years. Now that he actually is a neurotic old man, he doesn’t seem any different; he’s simply familiar. In To Rome with Love, he plays Jerry, the retired record-producer father of a young American in love. Hayley (Midnight in Paris’s Alison Pill) fell for her handsome Italian fiancé, Michelangelo, in front of the Trevi Fountain. Hayley’s parents (her mom is played by Judy Davis, who didn’t get anything near enough screen time, in my opinion) have come to meet Michelangelo’s parents. (You can easily imagine Jerry’s reaction when he learns that his new in-law runs a funeral parlor.) The rest of the story lets Allen make fun of artistic pseudo-intellectualism in a predictable yet charming way. Michelangelo’s father (played by real-life Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato) is an undiscovered operatic sensation. He sings gloriously, but—alas—only in the shower. In another unsurprising but enjoyable ending, Jerry, who still dreams of making his mark as an opera director, finds a way to stage a rather drippy production of Pagliacci.
The other Americans-in-Italy story is in some ways the most complex. It revolves around a young architecture student, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg, who is an absolute ringer for a younger Woody Allen), his devoted girlfriend, and her femme fatale best friend. The story is not all that interesting: boy meets girl’s friend, boy cheats on girl with girl’s friend. And I cannot for one moment buy Ellen Page as the irresistible other woman, Monica. Before we meet her, we hear that “Men just adore her. I think it’s because of the sexual vibe that she gives off.” Are we talking about the same elfin Ellen Page? Worst casting ever, Woody. Better to have switched the two women’s roles and cast Greta Gerwig as the casa-wrecking seductress.
A much better example of casting is found in Alec Baldwin as the story’s quasi- narrator/conscience. Not only is his performance pitch-perfect (and he has some of the most wry lines in the film) but the presence of his established-architect John offers the audience a host of imaginative possibilities to ponder. Is he the young architect Jack’s future self? Or is Jack his own past? Is he real or imagined? His unexplained presence reminded me at times of some of the best nuances of earlier Woody Allen films. Most of his comments are directed at Jack, but sometimes Monica can hear him too. At one point, she dismisses him with, “You will never understand women.”
“That’s been proven,” he tells her without missing a beat.
Sadly, To Rome with Love does not live up to last year’s Midnight in Paris. It’s uneven and feels a little unfinished. The stories are charming, but not very important. Most of the themes are reheated from other, better Woody Allen films.
But, I confess I enjoyed it.
Is To Rome with Love great Woody Allen? No. It’s not even very good Woody Allen. It’s probably mediocre Woody Allen, at best. But mediocre Woody Allen is still better than the majority of the movies made today.
All in all, it’s still pretty good pizza.