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» The Vancouver Sun Movie review: When in Rome, do as Woody does

To Rome with Love finds Woody Allen writing another cinematic postcard
by Katherine Monk, Postmedia, published on July 5, 2012

Left to Right: Woody Allen, Flavio Parenti and Alison Pill.When Woody hits your eye like a big pizza pie, it’s amore — and probably a little cheese.

After 40 years, he’s figured out the recipe for the romantic comedy romp, and the older he gets, the more he relies on familiar tastes.

This explains why To Rome with Love feels like a push of the “repeat” button after the success of Midnight in Paris.

A sprawling, multi-pronged view of romance as experienced by several different characters, To Rome with Love doesn’t possess the same thematic clarity as its predecessor, which featured Owen Wilson as a man seeking creative inspiration through the muse of nostalgia.

Wilson was a youthful reflection of Allen’s own obvious desire to turn back the pages of time, and this time around, we get a rather similar character in Jesse Eisenberg.

Wearing the Allen uniform like he was born to wear chinos, Eisenberg appropriates the perfect amount of Allen’s trademark neurosis as he plays Jack, an architect studying in Rome and living with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig).

Jack is a thoughtful and emotional male, but he’s weak when it comes to love. His girlfriend can probably sense this wobble, because when her girlfriend Monica (Ellen Page) comes to visit, Sally goes out of her way to ask Jack not to fall in love with her. Apparently, Monica is a maneater who can make hearts flutter with little more than a breathy giggle, and so, despite Sally’s prescient caution, Jack ends up falling for his girlfriend’s gal pal.

This storyline alone would be enough for most movies, but Allen’s attention span seems to be shortening as he grows longer in the tooth. He can’t sit still in a single plot for 90 minutes, so he changes the channel at regular intervals — cooking up cheese-filled vignettes.

These little narrative gnocchi include a story of a talented opera singer who can only sing in the shower, a recently retired Broadway producer known for disastrous openings (played by Allen himself), his kvetching wife (played by Judy Davis) and their bright-eyed daughter who recently got engaged to a handsome Italian.

There is also an entirely abstract story of an ordinary man (Roberto Benigni) who mysteriously ends up being the sweet meat for the paparazzi, as well as a tale involving a sexually nervous Nelly who ends up with a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) on the day he meets his extended, and altogether powerful, family.

Most of the action feels lighter than air, a haphazard blend of Catskills cornball and intellectual posturing. Little of it registers on any emotional level because the characters feel entirely two-dimensional, sketches instead of fully realized portraits.

When you have great dialogue and skilled performers, the delicate threads can braid together and form a strong rope of story. Typically, this is one of Allen’s central skills, but even his writing seems to be losing elasticity, and without bounce, this comic ball lands with a series of slow thuds.

Scenes that needed to be light as a tiramisu feel leaden, and characters designed to be empathetic are just irritating.

Everyone feels like a doll in Allen’s clammy hands as he plays out the strains of his own neurosis in emotional miniature. There’s a constant sense of clenching and contrivance that drains the comic juice because it all feels laboured.

Only one plot line manages to rise above the sticky fluff, and not surprisingly, it’s an extension of Allen’s closest alter ego, Jack.

Though it’s never entirely explained, Jack ends up spending time with a man who may as well be his future self, John. Embodied on screen by Alec Baldwin, John has all the cushy puffiness that comes with age and success, but he’s lost his creative edge — as well as his passion for love.

John tries to rediscover his lost soul through his connection to Jack, but he can only sit back and wisecrack as Jack makes the same mistakes he did so many romantic moons ago.

These are the strongest moments in the film because they’re the only ones that feel truly honest. Even with Baldwin’s syncopated deadpan delivery, there’s a knowing tone behind the action that gives the flurry of comic punches real weight.

Like Wilson in Midnight in Paris, Baldwin reinvents the Woody Allen persona in his own image — and through his own alpha male body — transforming the nerd in glasses into a golf club old boy with a gift for sarcasm.

The rest of the mix doesn’t possess anything close to this sparkle, and often feels like something abandoned at the bottom of Carrot Top’s trunk – a rubber chicken of shtick, or a romantic rose that squirts water.

There’s plenty of showmanship, but no magic.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Source: www.vancouversun.com

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