Movie Review: “To Rome With Love”

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Woody Allen's latest European city ensemble piece is a bit of a comedown after Midnight in Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

It’s a light sex comedy, featuring a handful of watchable and agreeably amusing stories, mainly to do with love. It asks of us nothing but that we feel the same slight bemusement towards its characters that Allen does.

And yet I still found many pleasures in the film's glowing, sun-kissed images. Having just explored Rome myself for the first time last year, I found being taken back to the Eternal City pleasurable in and of itself. 

The movie intertwines with my own memories and experiences of, say, climbing Michelangelo's steps to Capitol Hill. Hey, there's Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps. And isn't that the market where I’d pick up fruit in the morning?

The term "Ozymandias melancholia," coined by one of the characters, perfectly sums up the mood this picture is going for. In Allen’s films, time bends and fantasy and reality blend easily, just as modern Rome coexists with the ruins of ancient glory. 

But whereas Midnight in Paris tapped into the essence of the city, and the magical conceit flowed from it, here he uses Rome mainly just as a backdrop.   

I enjoyed the radiant Italian actress Alessandra Mastronardi as the newlywed bride of a hapless young man (Alessandro Tiberi). They're a small-town couple just off the train, ready to begin a new life in the big city. She gets lost looking for a place to get her hair done.

Just when her head starts to nod in despair, she looks up to discover that the piazza has become a movie set. All of her favorite Italian movie stars are there (including her unlikely heartthrob Antonio Albanese, rotund and bald). 

Meanwhile, a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) appears at her husband’s hotel room door unbidden. He ends up awkwardly yoked to her when his uptight big-city relatives barge in on them and assume she’s his new wife.

Elsewhere, an architect (Alec Baldwin) who's made his name designing shopping malls strolls down a side street and comes upon an idealistic young architecture student (Jesse Eisenberg), who happens to be living with girlfriend Greta Gerwig in the very apartment in which Baldwin lived when he studied in Rome as a young man. 

Ellen Page plays Gerwig's friend, a failed actress who arrives in town, making Eisenberg all hot and bothered with her adventurousness and her pseudo-intellectualisms. As critic Ben Kenigsberg has noted, Baldwin counsels his younger self just like Bogie counseling Woody in Play It Again, Sam.

Meanwhile, an American (Alison Pill) falls in love with a young Roman (Flavio Parenti). We meet her parents, Woody Allen and Judy Davis, on the plane to Rome.

I laughed at just about every scene Woody was in, from the first moment we see him (being neurotic, naturally, during turbulence).  He's playing an opera director at the end of a career long on loony ideas, short on public or critical éclat.

The film gets comic mileage from Allen's temperamental differences with his daughter's suitor, who turns out to be a radical who feels keenly the exploitation of the working man. When Woody overhears the young man's father (tenor Fabio Armiliato), a mortician by trade, singing in the shower, he listens in awe: here is one last shot at glory! The joke is that Fabio, like most of us, can only sing in the shower.

Elsewhere in the city, an everyday Roman (Roberto Benigni, a sight gag even when he's just standing still) steps out his front door and finds himself mobbed by paparazzi. What’s he done to become famous? Nothing! He’s famous just for being famous.

The film is unhurried. The length and steadiness of the camera’s gaze itself becomes droll. It's a hallmark of Allen's recent style to hold an actor in close-up during a revelatory or epiphanous moment, as if the more he lets time play across the image, the more the moment’s magic or truth will reveal itself. 

Sometimes it works. There's a long close-up on Baldwin at the moment Page’s character breaks his younger self's heart. So many emotions flit across his face. The downside to this approach is that even the best jokes are overelaborated.

This farce runs out of fizz before it's over. Still, I enjoyed dreaming these light dreams with these characters.  

Born in Athens, Ohio, Scott Pfeiffer has lived in Chicago since 1993. He did a minor in film at Ohio University back in the day. These days, he knocks about Chi-town, taking in film, music and theater. Read his other music and film reviews at The Moving World.