Woody Allen's latest European adventure is a portmanteau farce with some hits among its many misses|
by Peter Bradshaw, published on Thursday, September 13, 2012 - 15.29 BST
Recycled cliches ... To Rome With Love
He's been to London, Barcelona and Paris and now Woody Allen has made another of his luxury-tourist stopovers in a European capital, shot in a honeyed sunset-light and recycling picturesque cliches around half a century old. This time it's Rome, and the original title was to be Bop Decameron, an allusion to Boccaccio's medieval multi-narrative tale that set up this ensemble movie. Allen was, however, persuaded that it was too abstruse, and I suspect the hopelessly dated reference to bebop was probably a bit baffling as well. The alternative, Nero Fiddles, was also rejected, so To Rome With Love it is.
Allen is no stranger to Italy and Italians: in Play It Again, Sam (1972), his film critic Allan comes out of the portmanteau film Le Coppie, or Couples, by De Sica and others and then fantasises about jealous husband Tony Roberts going for him with a knife, as if in a spoof Italian movie. There was also a brilliant Antonioni pastiche in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (1972), and his Stardust Memories (1980) was famously a homage to Fellini. To Rome With Love has nothing of this stylishly offbeat connoisseurship. Everything is pretty much on the nose. This film is far from the greatness of earlier years, although it sometimes has a cantering gaiety and sense of farcical fun.
We begin with a vision of one of those stately and pompous-looking Roman policemen who direct the traffic in pristine white gloves and white helmet. Perhaps in the back of Allen's mind was the famous 1960s Candid Camera stunt; hidden-camera footage of flamboyant traffic cops from around the world was set to appropriate music and the Roman officer had a ripe classical score. He is to be the narrator, introducing us to all the stories happening in the city. Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are naive newlyweds who have come to town to meet Antonio's family, but he winds up having to pass off a quaintly imagined voluptuous prostitute called Anna as his bride. This is Penélope Cruz, straightforwardly playing Sophia Loren.
Hayley (Alison Pill) is a visiting student who falls in love with handsome young local Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti); her parents fly in to meet him, and they are Phyllis and Jerry, played by Judy Davis and Allen himself. He is a retired opera director who is astonished by Michelangelo's father, a mortician who appears to have a superb singing voice. Meanwhile, nervy, nerdy architecture student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) falls in love with self-centred wannabe-screen star Monica (Ellen Page). Successful American architect John (Alec Baldwin) sees much of his vulnerable younger self in Jack, then becomes the fantasy voice in Jack's head, warning him that this woman is trouble. He is very like the imaginary Bogart in Play It Again Sam, or indeed the worldly Tony Roberts. Lastly, there is Roberto Benigni playing Leopoldo, the ordinary guy who to his dismay is capriciously taken up as a celebrity by the febrile and vacuous media.
Now that Allen's prospects of a May-to-September love affair on screen are not viable, the trope of the older or retired couple coming into town to meet the prospective son- or daughter-in-law, or just on vacation, wandering at will, is as good a way as any of positioning Allen and anyone from the older generation into a live romantic situation or at any rate in parallel with that situation. There is some fun to be had with all the discomfiture and unease; but some of the jokes and situations simply don't work. There is nothing comparable to the time-travel device in Midnight in Paris that made comic and ironic sense of the nostalgia and tourist incomprehension.
This is not to say that there aren't shrewd touches. Benigni's performance is actually reasonably watchable incredible as that sounds and his story is handled far more lightly than in recent movies by Xavier Giannoli and Matteo Garrone on the same theme. Leopoldo's chauffeur tells him that everyone has to endure the same sorrow in this world, celebrities and non-celebrities alike, so it is of course better to be a celebrity. That's a refreshingly honest moral to draw. Baldwin has some brilliant moments as he icily dismisses Monica's posturing: his final closeup heavy-lidded, undeceived is fascinating and rather chilling.
Loyal Allen fans will know the minute-by-minute tension of watching his recent movies: the relief of registering a successful gag, and the occasional wash of melancholy at the recurring thought that one day there will be no more new Woody Allen movies. It gives these films an audience frisson to be had nowhere else. But there is of course another picture in the works, and the sudden success of Midnight in Paris proved that this unique film-maker may continue to surprise us all.
Rating: 2 out of 5