by Michael Ordoña, published on Sunday, June 24, 2012 - 04:00 a.m.|
"There was finally a part for me," Woody Allen says of his first acting role in six years, in "To Rome With Love." "You know, I write a movie, I look at it, and I say," he sighs, " 'There's nothing in it I can play.' Here, I finished it and said, 'Oh, I could play the father.' "
Seeing him onscreen again, Allen fans may be hit by the same warm rush "Star Wars" buffs enjoy when witnessing that opening crawl. His character, Jerry, is presented as a white-knuckle flier making a trans-Atlantic journey, miserable for his psychiatrist wife (Judy Davis). It's the same neurotic nebbish figure aficionados have come to know and love.
Most of the restrictions on Allen's work, however, seem placed by him. Because of his reputation, prolific nature, loyal audience and low budgets, the 76-year-old writer-director-actor can tell pretty much any story he wants, whenever he wishes, in any way he wants without fear of alienating the key demographic. He works outside the studio system and casts for quality, not box office.
It does give pause, however, when the filmmaker says he has trouble conceiving parts for himself these days, especially as a leading man. Why not a romance with, say, Davis or Helen Mirren?
"Oh, I can't," he groans. "If you do the older person, it becomes a geriatric movie. It's like those movies Walter Matthau used to do with Jack Lemmon or something. Helen Mirren is ... mmm ... very attractive. But it's still an older person's movie. What's that one with Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn? I don't want to do that."
In "To Rome With Love," there are plenty of romantic - and otherwise carnal - entanglements, but they're left mostly to youngsters Alison Pill, Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg and Greta Gerwig. The film is composed of four discrete narratives tied together only by the possibility that Rome is a magical place where such unlikely tales might unfold.
Among the notables appearing: Penélope Cruz as an extremely self-confident prostitute; Roberto Benigni as perhaps the world's dullest man, who suddenly becomes its most famous; and Alec Baldwin as an accomplished American architect encountering a young American architectural student (Eisenberg) who may be his younger self.
"My feeling was that there wouldn't be any real hurdle to it if the individual tales were good stories," the affable, engaged and healthy-looking Allen says in a suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. "Then it was just a question of judiciously knowing when to cut away, to leave you hanging and pick up the new story. ... We had to experiment and recut here and there, but it was a doable kind of thing."
"Rome" refuses to adhere to the strictures of time or internal logic. The Baldwin-Eisenberg story line, in particular, can be interpreted in two distinctly different ways.
"Years ago, I made a film called 'The Purple Rose of Cairo,' and I said, 'The people step off the screen and come out into the audience and she interacts with them; she has an affair with one of them.' 'Well, how do they step off the screen? I don't understand.' Now, I don't know. I can't answer that. But I did it, and it worked just fine. Nobody questioned it.
"And the same way in 'Midnight in Paris.' I felt the guy got in a car and he drove to a house and he got out and it was 50 years earlier. I didn't want to think to myself, 'I've got to justify this. How is that possible?' And if you don't think about it, it frees you," he says.
"So when I was doing Alec Baldwin's story, I was thinking, 'He does this and he does that because I want him to do it.' And I don't really know if Jesse's in Alec's mind or Alec's in Jesse's mind or they alternate, and I didn't think anybody would care. If the scenes are effective and they're either funny or engaging in some way and the performers are good, no one will ask those questions."
The perpetually unsatisfied auteur continues to be unimpressed by his own work, despite setting a personal-best box-office mark with last year's Oscar-winning "Midnight in Paris." Even past successes such as the multiple-Oscar-winning "Hannah and Her Sisters" offer little solace.
"There's a big difference between what you conceive and what you end up with. When I'm home in my apartment, I think I've just finished writing 'Citizen Kane' and this film is going to be the greatest thing to ever hit movies. But then you go out and meet the test of reality, and you can't get Alec Baldwin for this movie, he's busy. You say, 'Put the camera there' and when you go home, you realize you should have put it there. And when you see your film cut together, you say, 'What happened to "Citizen Kane"?' And you think, 'Oh God, let me not be embarrassed.'
"And you start to sell out your idea. Your idea was 'This is the end scene and this is the middle scene' and you say, 'No, I'll switch it ... because it works better.' And you sell out your intellectual integrity, your artistic integrity, for effectiveness.
"The end of 'Hannah and Her Sisters' was supposed to be that the girl, Barbara Hershey, who (Michael Caine) was after, is married to someone else, and he's heartbroken and still stuck in this terrible relationship with Hannah and he's longing for the other girl. When I did that ending, people who watched it said, 'It was great, but the ending was such a dud. I hated it.' So I changed it and made it a little more upbeat at the end. And then the movie worked fine, but it wasn't my movie.
"I could never like it after that."
To Rome With Love (R) opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.