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» Why Woody Allen’s New Movie, To Rome with Love, Is His 26th Best (or 15th Worst)

by Bruce Handy, published on June 15, 2012 - 1:45 PM

Left to Right: Ellen Page as Monica and Jesse Eisenberg as Jack.

At this point, reviewing Woody Allen movies feels like reviewing the weather. Opinion is irrelevant: like them or not, they just keep coming, and if it’s raining today—if you look out the window and see Hollywood Ending coming down in torrents, or the dreaded wintery mix of Whatever Works—maybe tomorrow it’ll be clear skies and Match Point.

Allen has been averaging a film a year since his first as a writer-director, Take the Money and Run, was released in 1969. His latest, To Rome with Love, opens next week. (In America, that is. It’s already playing in Italy and last month screened out of competition at Cannes.) I saw To Rome with Love last night. Did I like it? Not that much, to be honest—the film’s about as good as its title. It has the usual to-die-for cast, including Penélope Cruz, Alec Baldwin, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg, Judy Davis, Alison Pill, and Allen himself, for the first time in a while. That group pulls a lot of freight, as does Rome itself—this is the literally sunniest movie Allen has ever made. But like a number of the director’s recent movies, this one often feels like a second- or third-generation Xerox of earlier, better films.

Still, it made me happy just to spend 90 minutes in Woody World, that Neverland rooted in mid-century aspiration where people still quote Freud and argue about abstract art and take long, Jamesian trips abroad with seemingly no means of support. When it comes to Allen, I’m all in; I’m a lifer. I’ve seen every single one of his films and, despite numerous disappointments, I continue to approach each new release with an open heart. You probably would, too, if you had been a college freshman when Annie Hall came out, which served as your generation’s Casablanca in terms of providing a kind of template for how adults fall in love and what they then do about it.

But even if you came of romantic age with Dirty Dancing or Titanic or—my condolences—27 Dresses, you have to admire an artist as metronomic as Allen. He’s a filmmaker who, whatever he lacks in quality control, makes up for it in relentlessness. His career is a de facto throwback to the old studio system, where stars and directors were kept in harness. That led to a lot of bad and mediocre movies, but it also led to a significant haul of great ones. Art is often about batting average, anyway—comedy more so than most genres—and the more at-bats, the better your odds. I often think of two of Allen’s contemporaries, Warren Beatty and Barbra Streisand, who like him took complete control of their careers but who are far more finicky when it comes to actually making movies, spending years and even decades sniffing around and turning tail on projects. Both are wonderful performers with great comic gifts and, under Louis B. Meyer or Jack Warner, they would have had dozens more films on their résumés, and a handful of those would have been for the ages.

A handful of films—that’s all we remember about most movie stars and directors, anyway, maybe a half-dozen or so pictures at best, which make or break reputations. Take Jimmy Stewart: The Philadelphia Story, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, Harvey, Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Those seven films are all most people know of Stewart, and they are more than enough to anoint him an all-time great. And then throw in a second round of You Can’t Take It with You, The Shop Around the Corner, Winchester 77, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Anatomy of a Murder, Shenandoah. Who holds On Our Merry Way or Dear Brigitte against Jimmy Stewart?

Woody Allen can claim just as impressive a top 13. If he was lucky, he might have made 13 films total working at a Beatty-esque “pace” instead of 41, but would they have all been masterpieces, or thereabouts? Who knows, but I doubt it. In the spirit of meaningless quantification, however, I thought it would be fun to rank all of Allen’s features as a writer-director, from top to bottom. A silly exercise, true, but so is the aperçu I’m going to offer about this weekend’s forecast in the elevator at work. So, fuck it:

1. Crimes and Misdemeanors
2. Manhattan
3. Annie Hall
4. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
5. Deconstructing Harry
6. Match Point
7. Bullets Over Broadway
8. Sleeper
9. Husbands and Wives
10. Hannah and Her Sisters
11. The Purple Rose of Cairo
12. Midnight in Paris
13. Radio Days
14. Broadway Danny Rose
15. Love and Death
16. Bananas
17. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
18. Alice
19. Sweet and Lowdown
20. Zelig
21. Take the Money and Run
22. Mighty Aphrodite
23. Melinda and Melinda
24. Stardust Memories
25. Cassandra’s Dream
26. To Rome with Love
27. Everyone Says I Love You
28. Interiors
29. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex
30. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy
31. Manhattan Murder Mystery
32. Small Time Crooks
33. Celebrity
34. Another Woman
35. Shadows and Fog
36. September
37. Anything Else
38. Scoop
39. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
40. Hollywood Ending
41. Whatever Works

Lastly: if you’re in the mood for a film with terrific, sexy actresses playing self-absorbed, neurotic characters, a less appealing male lead, a lot of talk, some beautiful scenery, and a shrug at the end, and if you can’t wait for To Rome with Love, try My Sister’s Sister.

Source: www.vanityfair.com

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