Woody Allens latest is lazy, scattered, underdeveloped, and perfectly enjoyable.|
by Dana Stevens, published on Friday, June 22, 2012 - 4:58 PM ET
Woody Allens To Rome with Love isnt so much a movie as a box of notionsnotions both in the sense of half-formed ideas and of random odds and ends, buttons and ribbons and scraps of lace. Allen seems to be digging through a careers worth of unused (or in some cases, recycled) material and finding new ways to collage it together, with alternately tiresome and pleasing results. At times this multiple-plot meander through the glorious labyrinth of the Eternal City can feel aimless, even lazy. But in the films best moments, that willingness to wander works to its advantage.
Lets start with the best of this portmanteau movies four separate storylines: A successful middle-aged architect, John (Alec Baldwin), whos vacationing in Rome with his wife and some friends, excuses himself from sightseeing to visit the neighborhood where he spent a year in his student days. There, he meets Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), an architecture student not unlike his old self, who recognizes John (Dont you design shopping malls?) and invites him up to his apartment for coffee. Soon, John finds himself offering unsolicited advice on the love triangle that develops among Jack, his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig), and Sallys best friend, a narcissistic but irresistible actress named Monica (Ellen Page).
I admired the way Allen subtly shades this plotline from the realistic to the fantastical: At first, John and Jack seem to be interacting in the real world, but it soon becomes clear that either Jack is imagining an older mentor who follows him everywhere, or John is reliving a painful episode from his own youth with the details slightly changed. Or maybe the two men dreamed each other up? Allens touch is light enough in this part of the film that all these possibilities seem to coexist and enrich one anotherand it doesnt hurt that Baldwin and Eisenberg are superb together, with a chemistry that brings out both the comic and melancholic elements of the story. Gerwig and Page dont get much to do other than represent two classic Allen archetypesthe patient, forbearing girlfriend and the neurotic femme fatalebut still, the young-architect-in-love plotline felt to me like the movies most finished element.
The same cant be said of a plot thread involving Roberto Benigni as Leopoldo Pisanello, an ordinary middle-class nobody who wakes up one day to find himself inexplicably famous. After a lifetime of offering his dull opinions at the office water cooler, suddenly hes being breathlessly interrogated on morning news shows about the banal details of his quotidian existence: Does he shave before or after breakfast? Sleep on his stomach or his back? Theres much to admire in the casual absurdism of the Pisanello storyline (which is scripted entirely in Italian). The scenes of this baffled everyman dodging crowds of squawking paparazzi function both as a scathing critique of reality-TV culture and a semiautobiographical confession about Allens own relationship to fame. And Benigni, a gifted physical comedian, brings both pathos and physical grace to the role. But this story bogs down in its own sourness; ultimately, Allens thinking about fame extends no further than fame sucks, and by the time Pisanellos one-note story draws to a close, weve more than gotten the point.
There are two more storylines left in the box of notions: One involves a naive provincial couple visiting Rome who get mixed up in a day of mistaken identities and potential infidelities: The man (Alessandro Tiberi) winds up passing off a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) as his new bride to his family, while the woman (Alessandra Mastronardi) finds herself in a dalliance with a suave movie star (Antonio Albanese). The other features Allen himself as Jerry, a retired opera director whose daughter (Alison Pill) is engaged to an Italian (Flavio Parenti). When he hears his future son-in-laws father (Fabio Armiliato) singing Verdi in the shower, Jerry is transported, and insists that the poor man, who wants nothing more than to practice his lifelong vocation as an undertaker, allow himself to be promoted as the latest operatic sensation. To me, both these stories felt like unfinished sketches; similar to the Pisanello plotline, they contain ideas about fame, anonymity, success, and failure that are never fully developed or explored. (Though the opera subplot does culminate in a ludicrous staging of Pagliacci at La Scala that makes the whole thing worthwhile.)
It would require a separate essay to express the peculiar melancholy I feel about Woody Allens current incarnation as a maker of wistful European travelogues (Midnight in Paris, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and the various films hes made set in London). On the one hand, its nice to see him enjoying himself in the fresh air after the bitter, stagnant feel of his late New York-set films (Anything Else, the dreadful Whatever Works). And Allens partnership with the cinematographer Darius Khondji has given viewers some mouthwatering opportunities for vicarious travel. But Allen lets both himself and his characters (especially the men) off the hook too easily: There are plenty of ideas, but not enough effort or genuine introspection. Even as Allen invites us to explore historic neighborhoods in the worlds most exquisite cities, its hard to shake the feeling hes slumming.