A pleasing if inconsistent romp through Rome sees a talented cast wandering through several eras of Woody Allen films.
Following the success of Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s most profitable and acclaimed film in decades, the filmmaker continued to do what he always does and simply kept on making movies. Continuing the European theme that has characterised his ‘exile’ period, To Rome With Love reportedly began life as the result of an offer from the Italian distributors that Allen couldn’t refuse. Originally titled Bop Decameron, a reference to a 14th century novel that nobody understood, the no less impenetrable Nero Fiddled became the replacement throughout production. The changing of titles is a Woody tradition that goes back as far as the thematic origins of this film, ultimately named by the distributors to Allen’s indifference, with a comedic style that would have just as easily fit in with Allen’s 1970s oeuvre more than anything he has made in the last decade or so.
To Rome With Love draws on four distinct stories, loosely connected by a theme of success, all taking place in Rome. American tourist Hayley (Alison Pill) meets and falls in love with Italian Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), and they are soon engaged to be married. Hayley’s parents, Jerry (Woody Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) fly over to Rome. Jerry, a retired and critically maligned opera director, spots a talent in Michelangelo’s father Giancarlo (real opera star Fabio Armiliato), who sings incredibly well as long as he is in the shower. Then there’s newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi), the former of whom has to pretend that prostitute Anna (Penelope Cruz) is his wife due to a case of mistaken identity. Yet Milly also gets lost in Rome and begins a romance with movie star Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese). Meanwhile, middle-class everyman Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) inexplicably becomes an overnight sensation and is hounded by reporters and fans everywhere he goes. Finally, serving as the main dramatic thread, well-known architect John (Alec Baldwin) encounters the young architecture student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives on the same street John did thirty years ago. Jack is in a committed relationship to Sally (Greta Gerwig), but finds himself increasingly attracted to Monica (Ellen Page). John narrates their growing relationship, leading to the possibility that his connection with Jack may be something more than random.
Midnight in Paris had a time-travelling storyline, ultimately determining that the best place to be was in celebrating the here and now. It is somewhat ironic that Allen’s very next film is steeped in his own comedy stylings of the past, crafting a determinedly anti-modern piece that is a mixture of absurdism, screwball and situational comedy. Allen made several anthology films in the 1970s, and there is more than a little bit of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), alongside the Italian masters of the last half century, present in this film. The strongest of these is undoubtedly the Baldwin/Eisenberg/Page thread, which actually draws on Allen’s history of love triangles from Manhattan (1979) to Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008). Eisenberg and Baldwin make a terrific twin-set, with the latter showing his natural comedic talents that have been consistently displayed on television’s 30 Rock. Page is a classic piece of Woody Allen, a clueless temptress who leaves an understated disaster in her wake. This story alone could have carried an entire film, but the retro-charm of the film takes it in an entirely different direction.
It’s also a pleasure to see Allen himself back in front of the camera, the first time since Scoop (2006), with his public persona not fading one iota with age, having always been an old soul in a neurotic New Yorker’s body. He effortlessly plays off regular player Judy Davis, who slips into Allen’s world for the fifth time. Having previously played off Allen in Deconstructing Harry (1997), and marrying Allen’s substitute in Celebrity (1998), their relationship on-screen seems like the most natural thing in the world. Similarly, who else could be cast but Roberto Benigni to give such priceless innocent reactions to being suddenly thrust into a world of fame? The least essential of the stories is the romantic misadventures of Antonio and Milly, not through any fault of the earnest actors, but it is simply one element too many in this ‘midsummer sex comedy’.
While certainly not an essential piece of Woody’s cannon, it does draw many elements from his previous eras of filmmaking. Lightweight without being entirely forgettable, there is much to enjoy in To Rome With Love if you allow yourself to be swept up in the beauty of the city and can ignore the frequent schmaltzy indulgences and over-length of the film. As with any of Allen’s films that feature a place in the title, the real star here is the city it glorifies, shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji in the same idealistic light that brought Paris to life in Allen’s previous outing. Having now beatified Europe once again for the art houses of the world, it is pleasing to see Allen is returning to native soil with his next picture, and we are safe in the knowledge that he hasn’t lost a shred of his sense of humour.
To Rome with Love was released in Australia on 18 October 2012 from Hopscotch.