by Gar Smith, published on Friday June 29, 2012 - 11:21:00 AM|
From Midnight in Paris to high noon in Rome, Woody Allen delights in tossing a mad dash of chatty, conflicted characters into ephemeral fantasies that unspool in gorgeous, well-lit locations. His latest romp will delight Allen's many fans (and the resulting surge in Rome-bound vacation travel might actually manage to salvage the Italian economy).
Allen's last film, Midnight in Paris was a big hit owning to a hard-to-resist movie prankpeppering the film with famous celebrities from another era. Call it the schlock of recognition, but it guaranteed guffaws. "Oh! Look! It's Hemingway!" "OMG! It's Picasso!"
In Allen's Roman holiday, he eschews such easy tricks. (With one big exception. Allen inserts his "Woody" character into his latest film. And before his character, "Jerry," even utters a word, the audience is already laughing. "Har! It's Woody Allen!"
Yep, Woody's back, in all his nervous, whining, death-obsessed, neurotic glory. Self-absorbed and impervious to criticism. The ultimate Kvetcher in the Wry.
From the first frame, Rome is gorgeous, shot in summery hues, walls and windows a-glow. And such is Allen's charm and clout, that he has assembled a world-class cast for one of the most heavily star-populated films this side of Moonrise Kingdom.
There are four or five story lines happening simultaneously. As a directorial card-shuffling stunt, it is impressive and deft, fast-paced and entertaining. (It helps that it's fast-paced because most of the story twists are too improbable to withstand close inspection.) There is even a film-within-a-film: an unexplained fantasy of a nobody-turned-instant-celebrity starring Roberto Benigni. (The way this odd parable inhabits a world entirely apart from the rest of the film may leave viewers wondering if Benigni was invited to write and direct his own scenes.)
Alec Baldwin delivers his patented patter as a sardonic know-it-all, a US architect who enters a Roman wormhole and emerges in a parallel universe where he tries (and fails) to mentor a younger version of himselfan inexplicably unseen onscreen presence. In a cute trick of casting, Allen constructs a love triangle that features Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page. (Of course they will fall for each other. Didn't you see Juno?) But, sorry Woody, I still can't buy Ellen Page as a femme fatale.
Penelope Cruz is hyperbolically beautifula larger-than-life, 3-D presence in a 2-D worldlooming over the other characters like an R-rated Macy's Day balloon. (But why does Allen have to fill his film with so many prostitutes and morally loose women? Because he can?)
There seem to be at least 20 major roles shared between a torrent of American and Italian actors. Every member of the cast is exemplary. Allesandra Mastronardi, the Italian actress who plays Millya young bride whose misadventures will match those of her misdirected fiancéis especially enjoyable, her beautiful face alive with riotously colliding emotions. Milly's beau carries off some grade-A physical comedy, from spit-takes to pratfalls.
The comedic highpoint of To Rome with Love comes with a lavishly mounted performance of Pagliacci staged before a theatre packed with well-dressed opera lovers. The large cast is beautifully costumed, with the sole exception of the lead tenorwho performs the entire opera in the buff, in a shower stall.
And if that's not enough to pull you into the theater, there is also the wise counsel offered by a self-satisfied chauffer. To wit: Life is a pain, whether you are poor or a celebrity. But, given a choice, it's better to be a celebrity.