By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Traveling outside of his beloved New York, iconic filmmaker Woody Allen has set many of his recent films in such alluring European cities as London, Barcelona and Paris. And for this, his 46th film, he’s decided on a Roman holiday. With the themes of love, lust, ambition and celebrity threading throughout, the film’s structure is akin to interweaving Italian traffic, as four disparate groups of characters each take turns driving their stories forward, only to stop at unseen red lights while the other groups catch up.
The conceit of To Rome with Love starts immediately, as a cop interrupts his attempts at controlling the vehicles zooming through a heavily trafficked Roman intersection in order to address the camera directly. With the soaring pop song “Volare” (i.e., to fly) underscoring the scene, he introduces the main characters in voiceover. We experience an immediate meet-cute between the American tourist Hayley (Alison Pill) and the dashing activist Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). They’re soon engaged, and Hayley’s parents, played by Judy Davis and Woody Allen (his first onscreen appearance since 2006’s Scoop) fly out to meet the future in-laws. Davis is Phyllis, a psychiatrist who savors every acerbic line she shoots at her husband, Allen’s newly retired opera director Jerry. When Jerry overhears Michelangelo’s father (renowned tenor Fabio Armiliato) singing operatic arias in the shower like an Enrico Caruso, Jerry sees a chance to introduce the man’s voice to the world … and grab an attendant bit of fame for himself.
Another story involves a young provincial couple on their honeymoon, the shy bridegroom hoping to garner favor with his stuffy, upper-class relatives in order to secure a job in Rome. Mistaken identity occurs when Penélope Cruz’ Anna shows up as a highly popular prostitute intent on carrying out her prepaid services.
The two other tales border on the fantastical. We first discover that Alec Baldwin is a famous architect revisiting his youth in Rome some thirty years ago. However, he becomes a magic muse – mostly unseen to other characters – advising someone who may or may not be a younger version of himself (Jesse Eisenberg’s Jack). Throwing precaution to the wind, Jack becomes enamored of a neurotic actress (Ellen Page), and just may wind up cheating on his loyal girlfriend (Greta Gerwig).
And lastly, the funniest chapter of the lot chronicles Roberto Benigni’s workaday clerk Leopoldo, who finds himself inexplicably caught up in the hot lights of celebrity. And why is he suddenly hounded by every reporter in town, clamoring to know what he ate for breakfast and what he thinks of God? “You’re famous for being famous,” comes the reply. Hearkening back to theme of vertiginous fame that Allen examined in his earlier films (1998’s Celebrity and 1980’s Stardust Memories) here he brings an outrageous humor to it all. Benigni is a perfect choice … and not just for his blistering talent as a physical comedian. Given his personal back story as the man who ascended to a star-studded seat among the Hollywood gods in 1999 (winning three Oscars, including Best Actor, for A Beautiful Life) only to crash back down to earth when his 2002 film Pinocchio flopped, his character’s story echoes with a rueful, ironic verisimilitude.
At seventy-six years of age, Woody Allen continues to have an unerring sense of casting. Baldwin’s all-knowing internal wink, combined with his perfect sense of comedic timing, matches Allen’s style to a tee, and Cruz once again soars. (“Volare,” indeed.) However, Allen sometimes surprising us by working against type. Such as the idea of using onetime smart-aleck teen Juno turned sincere, slightly eggheady twentysomething Ellen Page as the femme fatale, described as “a man magnet.”
The look of the film is picture-postcard gorgeous, the Italian ochres and yellows competing with the dappled sun of the Eternal City itself (cinematography by Darius Khondji, who also was D.P. on Midnight in Paris).
While the four stories may not perfectly cohere, Woody Allen delivers such a good time at the movies – the film bubbling over with one delicious line after another – that we don’t really care. The septuagenarian auteur may still infuse his writing with a light layer of his go-to angst, but he seems to have found a lovely, gentle perspective, one that might have not been possible in earlier years. In short, he appears to love his characters just a little bit more. And so do we.
Rating on a scale of 5 coins in the Trevi Fountain: 4
Written and Directed by: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Alison Pill
Running Time: 112 minutes