by Jen Yamato, published on June 15, 2012 - 06:30 PM EDT|
Some were skeptical that Woody Allen would make an appearance at the opening night of the LA Film Festival, even with his latest Euro-whimsy To Rome With Love premiering in the kick-off slot Thursday night. But show up Woody did, with five of his starlets in tow including Alison Pill, Greta Gerwig, and a dazzling Penelope Cruz to debut his 43rd feature film with a few charmingly self-deprecating zingers.
"I had a wonderful time making the picture in Rome," Allen said, introducing his film to a packed theater at LA Live with a quip. "That doesn't mean that youll enjoy it."
Allen continued, quietly demurring the palpable adoration of the opening night crowd, joined by Cruz, Pill, Gerwig, and Italian co-stars Alessandra Mastronardi and Simona Caparrini. "I had fun. I was there for three months eating pasta, working with beautiful actresses and scintillating leading men. It was great for me. But whether it came out or not, you have to be the judge. If you like it, I want you to tell your friends and pressure Sony, so they dont put it in the Witness Protection Program." [Sony Pictures Classics releases the film in select cities next week.]
Allen's Roman outing follows in the vein of his Oscar-nominated hit Midnight in Paris, exploring the spirit of the Eternal City through four light-hearted, if exhausting and scattered vignettes. In one, renowned architect Alec Baldwin visits his old Rome stomping grounds, running into Jesse Eisenberg's 30 years-younger counterpart as he falls into an ill-advised affair. In another, a fiery hooker (Cruz) upends the life of a timid Italian newlywed. Roberto Benigni ("delightful, brilliant, sensational," lauded Allen) shines in his own Fellini-esque tale of an average Roman businessman who becomes an overnight celebrity, enjoying then bemoaning the trappings of fame. And Allen stars himself, alongside Pill and a wonderfully acerbic Judy Davis, as a neurotic visiting American navigating culture clash with his Italian in-laws.
To Rome may lack the pure magic and cohesion of Midnight in Paris, but it's more fascinated with riffing on the fantasy that the Italian city inspires. (Critics were mixed following the film's LA Film Fest premiere.) Among the themes turned over and over by Allen's characters: Celebrity, desire, and the twin, or dueling, identities entrenched in the very fabric of the city a place where the ruins of ancient civilization are an inescapable part of the modern landscape, a reminder of humanity's impulse to reach for greatness, even at the risk of great failure.
That hunger for life's "what ifs?" is, the film argues, as essential as it is impossible to ignore. A starstruck woman ponders the extramarital affair that would make for a lifetime of stories; a mortician seizes the chance at operatic greatness, even under the silliest of circumstances. In the film's most Allenesque pairing, Baldwin's knowing John peppers Eisenberg's Jack with the advice he knows he won't heed, because he didn't take it himself as a young man. Their double dose of relentless, self-aware commentary about life, love, and the wrong choices (and ill-advised love affairs) you just can't help choosing speaks to a filmmaker who is all too haunted by his past, yet content to come to terms with the naivete of his younger self.
Given how baldly he confronts the funny business of art and celebrity in the film, from all sides the fleeting pointlessness (and compulsive appeal) of being famous for famous' sake in today's reality TV culture, the eternal struggle to balance art and commerce, even the oiliness and pretension pervasive to Hollywood types alike, personified by Italian actor Antonio Albanese and with particular deftness by Ellen Page Allen's pre-screening sign-off remained softly humble. "Thank you very much for showing up tonight," he said. "If you like the picture, Im thrilled. If you hate it and think it was a waste of time coming, dont let me know [pause] because I get depressed easily."
To Rome with Love opens on June 22.