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National Post Review: To Rome with Love is Woody writ large
by Chris Knight, published on July 5, 2012 3:00 PM ET
Theres a scene in Woody Allens latest comedy in which the filmmaker, playing the father of an American student in Rome, goes to meet the parents of her new boyfriend. Theyre undertakers, and the father comes to the door in a bit of a state. Someone dead? he asks. Allen, in his trademark New York drawl, replies: No, but its early.
I wont give away any more of the funny bits in To Rome With Love, except to say that the zinger-to-running-time ratio is unusually high in this, Allens 42nd feature as writer/director. Theres also no single Woody Allen character in the four vignettes that make up the picture; rather, each story has its own, which occasionally means having to translate schmuck into Italian.
For his part, Allen stars as Jerry, a retired opera director whose claim to infamy was his unorthodox staging of the classics. If someone were to have reimagined Don Giovanni taking place in the waiting room of a podiatrists office, or The Barber of Seville with the barber replaced by a knish-seller, it would be Jerry. After he hears his daughters future father-in-law (played by famed Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato) singing in the shower, he convinces the mortician that it would be dead easy to start a new career on the stage.
The other three stories similarly deal with variations on the theme of fame. In one, a mild-mannered clerk played by Roberto Benigni is suddenly (and without explanation) catapulted into the kind of fame enjoyed by Benigni after his 1999 Oscar win for Life Is Beautiful. Hes hounded by the media, who demand the dullest details of his life. (You can tell this is fiction because the paparazzi dont have motor scooters.)
Another tale stars Italian actors Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi as an engaged couple from the countryside who have just arrived in Rome to meet his well-off family. She takes a walk, loses her cellphone and gets lost in the city, eventually wandering onto a film set. He gets mistaken for an important client by a prostitute, whom he must then pass off as his fiancée. Penelope Cruz plays the happy hooker.
Finally, the most Allen-esque bit features Jesse Eisenberg as Jack, an American architectural student spending a year in Rome with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig). Her actor friend (Ellen Page) has just ended a relationship and comes to crash with them. Youre just going to love her, Gerwig says, and of course shes right.
Jack is egged on in his romantic dalliance by Alec Baldwins character, who is either a famous architect or a figment of Jacks imagination. Or maybe both someone had to design the Sigmund Freud University campus.
The casting is impressive. Eisenberg is one of those of-course-he-should-play-the-Woody-Allen-role actors, and ticking him off the list now leaves Michael Cera at the top. The petite Page is an unlikely choice to play the home-wrecker, but she does a perfect job, even as Baldwin heckles her from the sidelines. Judy Davis makes the most of a small part as Jerrys acerbic wife; not everyone can steal a scene from Allen, although it helps when he writes the dialogue that lets you do it. Cruz gets a rare chance to show off her fourth language. And when Armiliato sings, there isnt a dry eye in the house; not even his own.
Aided by a jaunty score thats heavy on electric organ sounds (and occasionally opera), Allen stirs the pot often, cutting frequently from one story to another. Theyre not linked beyond the common theme and the Roman setting, which Allen frames like an excited, first-time tourist. Rome is just the latest city to help the famed New Yorker fund his filming, after London, Barcelona and Paris; not surprising that one of Allens early movies was called Take the Money and Run.
His Roman holiday is light on its feet, and funny to boot. It would be a mistake to say that hes getting consistently better with age, but is his career dead? No, but its early.