Featuring: Woody Allen, Judy Davis, Fabio Armiliato, Flavio Parenti, Alison Pill, Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Roberto Benigni, Alessandra Mastronardi, Alessandro Tiberi, Penélope Cruz, Antonio Albanese
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Australian release date: Thursday, 18 October, 2012
Reviewer 1: rolanstein (one-word verdict: patchy)
Reviewer 2: Karen (one-word verdict: lightweight)
Four Rome-based stories wind around each other in the telling without touching.
1. Successful middle-aged architect John (Alec Baldwin), visiting Rome with his wife and friends, takes a solitary walk to revisit old haunts and bumps into Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), an American architecture student who reminds him of his younger self. Turns out Jack is living with girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) in the very same apartment building John inhabited thirty years previously. John slips into a surrealistic mentor role, his primary mission being to dissuade Jack from falling for the seductive charms of Sally’s manipulative unemployed actor friend Monica (Ellen Page).
2. Small-town newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) have just moved to Rome to pursue an offer of work from Antonio’s posh uncles. Circumstances separate them, and they find themselves entangled in sexual liaisons, Antonio with pricey escort Anna (Penélope Cruz), Milly with famous Italian actor and pants man Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese).
3. Office clerk and family man Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) is the epitome of ordinariness – until he wakes up one morning to find himself unaccountably famous. Initially aghast at the gaggle of paparazzi stalking him, he quickly acclimatises to his new life of privilege and the other changes fame brings.
4. Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), a middle-aged mortician with a soaring operatic shower voice, is ‘discovered’ by retired avant garde opera director Jerry (Woody Allen).
Review 1: (rolanstein)
Opening scene: a smartly uniformed traffic controller atop his pedestal in the centre of a roundabout in busy Rome, perfectly tailored trousers cut tight as a 70s disco dandy’s, directing with the panache of an orchestra conductor (how very “Italian”). He turns to the camera and addresses us, the viewer. It appears he’s going to be our narrator.
In having the cop break character thus to lay bare his role as a narrative device, Woody gives us the nod from the outset that we should not expect to lose ourselves in this one a la Midnight In Paris. Hard not to pout. I’m way over self-referentiality. And I loved Midnight.
The cop apologises for his poor English, then introduces one of the four stories that the movie is built around – in accented but near-perfect English. He negotiates complex sentence structures without a problem, yet the few errors he does make are basic. Uh oh.
As an ESL teacher for too many years, I’m doubtless more aware than most of this sort of thing, but the point here is the shoddy screenwriting. How little effort would have been required to do some basic research and get the Italian-English right? Or alternatively, the “poor English” line could simply have been deleted.
Petty? If this were an isolated case, yes. But it’s not. This is but the first of too many instances of poor scripting throughout.
The worst is at the beginning of the architect story, where the screenwriter’s hand looms clumsy and large over the dialogue, which sounds ‘written’. Alec Baldwin’s first few lines as John the middle-aged architect are especially awkward and wooden (and he has to cop some of the blame for his delivery). Further, the subsequent discussion with his wife and friends, during which he announces his intention to go off on his own to re-visit his youthful haunts, has ‘exposition’ plastered all over it. This is a puzzling lapse from Woody, surely one of the finest exponents of dramatically multi-functional dialogue masquerading as realistic conversation.
It’s not all bad news in the crafting department, though. The switching between the four stories as they progress independently of each other is unusual and deftly executed. This is not only an impressive structural feat that keeps us on our toes without getting us confused, but an entirely appropriate one, feeding into the awareness alluded to by the traffic controller in the intro that beneath the surface of society there are as many stories playing themselves out simultaneously as there are people.
So what of the four stories that Woody has concocted?
Other than geographical location, there’s not much in common between them, unless you go searching for thematic links with more endeavour than I am prepared to put in. And while they’re set in Rome, there’s nothing especially Roman about them. The contrast with Midnight In Paris is stark in this respect.
Midnight was an idealised, magical portrayal of Parisian life past and present that charmed, driven by an infatuation with Paris on the part of the filmmaker that was impossible to resist; the stories that comprise To Rome With Love could be set anywhere and although there are surrealistic elements in each, there is no magic.
And unlike Woody’s other “love letters” to famous cities – New York (Manhattan), Barcelona (Vicki Cristina Barcelona), Paris (Midnight In Paris) – there’s nothing in the movie that captures the spirit of the Eternal City, other than obvious stuff: some lovely shots of central Rome and picturesque sidestreets, with some obligatory trademark features such as the Trevi Fountain, Colosseum and Spanish Steps tossed in, and a few extravagantly gesticulating Italian characters.
The most successful of the four vignettes – despite its poor start, the tale of the middle-aged architect who tries to steer a younger bloke away from the clutches of a femme fatale – features some astute characterisation that is exploited to great effect by the performers. Ellen Page is the standout, thriving in her role as manipulative poseur Monica whose fickleness and selfishness knows no bounds. Maybe it’s her vulnerable innocent look, maybe it’s the presence of shade-like mentor John exposing her every move to an increasingly besotted young Jack while simultaneously keeping the viewer at a distance, but somehow Monica manages to escape our contempt – and that of her hapless victims. Also, there’s a hint of Midsummer Night’s Dream fairy dust in the eyes of the young players in this slight but satisfying dramedy that lets ’em all off the judgmental hook.
Ditto in the story of the newlyweds who end up in unlikely sexual liaisons with other parties via a series of farcical narrative machinations. This is not much more than an enjoyable bit o fluff, the best moments provided by Penélope Cruz, resplendently sexy in the shortest of red dresses, who clearly delights in her role as an irreverent and outspoken call girl putting snooty noses out of joint. I like her more each time I see her – an intelligent and vibrant sex bomb who never takes herself too seriously. But that’s by the by.
Roberto Benigni quickly palls as Leopoldo, the ordinary man who finds himself suddenly famous for no discernible reason. This satire on today’s weird but pervasive fixation on trivial aspects of the lives of trivial people – ‘celebrities’ – runs out of puff long before it staggers to the finish line.
In the tale of the opera-singing mortician, Giancarlo, Woody makes an appearance as retired New York opera director, Jerry, who flies to Rome to meet his daughter’s Italian fiancé and family. Woody, I mean Jerry, is in typical mode as a hyper-anxious, hyper-neurotic, and just plain hyper New Yorker, and is accompanied by his long-suffering wife (Judy Davis), who tries to keep him in check, surviving through wry humour and irony.
No surprises with the Woody character – we’ve seen it all before many times. Still good for a chuckle or two, but Davis is the star of this old tag team. Even she can’t save the day, though. The story is doomed by its silly premise – gaining access to the stage for a world-class opera singer whose genius is confined to the shower – and its even sillier resolution. Worse than silly, it’s not funny. I found myself hoping against hope that Woody wouldn’t go anywhere as dumb and obvious as this. But alas…you can guess the rest.
As erratic and uninspired as this flick is, if you’re a Woody fan, as I am, you’ll still enjoy it. If not, give it a miss – unless you reckon Penelope in a red low-cut ultra-mini is worth the price of admission.
Review 2: (Karen)
Okay, I’ll admit it up front: I’m not a Woody fan. He’s made a career out of caricaturing the minutiae of his neuroses, but really the only thing that fascinates me about this is how he managed to attract any women, let alone gorgeous and talented (though clearly wacky) ones like Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. Watching a Woody Allen film is a bit like watching an Attenborough nature documentary: it’s interesting to learn about another kind of beast, and to the extent that abnormal psychology may throw light on normal human beings (assuming, of course, that’s what we are), we may even learn something about ourselves. Or not. So: I enter unconvinced; but, I declare, with an open heart. And it would be churlish not to acknowledge the occasionally witty, and fully traveloguey charms of To Rome With Love.
Rome in summer looks gorgeous, and its glorious ruins are the perfect backdrop for the handful of stories whose major link is their location. If there’s a unifying idea, it may be that, grand or small, all human endeavour comes to dust. The first mention of this idea is in a throwaway line by John (Alec Baldwin), the mature architect who had his glory days as a student in Rome, when he declines a sightseeing stroll, saying it brings on “Ozymandias melancholia”. Unfortunately this incisive insight becomes a blunt object with a further two mentions.
The stories vary in theme and quality. My favourite is probably the one about the random nature of fame, taken to its ludicrous conclusion, where paparazzi suddenly, and for no apparent reason, even to him, swarm around an ordinary citizen, Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), and report on his every banal action and thought. This critique of modern times and of the insidious nature of fame, its seductive benefits and addictive nature, is done with a light touch. The humour comes from the detail, with media paps adoringly and without irony chronicling such things as what Leopoldo ate for breakfast, and predicting/creating a fashion trend in genuine runs in stockings after his wife appears on a red carpet with damaged hose. And the predictable, but nicely delineated reaction of Leopoldo when his fame dissipates as suddenly as it appeared may go a way to explaining why celebrity Woody himself continues to shop his nervous, hesitant, bumbling personae in all manner of annoying films.
This is where To Rome With Love is good: because of the number of stories, Woody gets less screen time. Here, showing his age, his baggy, beady eyes blinking behind his trademark glasses – hardly a pinup boy for the life of the mind! – he’s Jerry, retired avant-garde opera director and nervous flyer, married to Phyllis, a psychiatrist (Judy Davis). They’re in Rome to meet their daughter’s fiancé. We must suspend disbelief about how such folk could afford the ultra-luxurious suite they are staying in – and in the high season! Judy Davis is great in her role, showing just the right blend of acerbic, resigned fondness appropriate to the capable, confident, long term partner of a self-absorbed neurotic like Jerry. One can only assume that his retirement will be the test of how long she will hang on in the marriage, dealing not so much with his annoying and childlike fear of flying (played for laughs here but rather pathetic), as presumably they simply won’t travel by air, but more with his interactions with other people: passive aggressive asides thinly disguised as witty observations for the amusement of the audience, but actually rude and bullying.
And what can we think of an opera director who cannot pronounce Italian names?
Much is made of Jerry’s career, which he has apparently maintained despite universal and constantly negative reviews. I’m not at all sure whether the piss-take here is gloriously directed at his own career in cinema, or at the pretensions of other theatrical endeavours; anyway, his bizarro idea of having the reluctant lead Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) set up with a shower on stage for his role in I Pagliacci leads to such hilarious direction as characters approaching the cubicle to be stabbed. Pagliacci indeed!
The conceit of Alec Baldwin popping up to offer unasked-for worldly-wise advice to the young architecture student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) is the unsubtle but fun redeeming feature of the otherwise dreary action of the boy falling for his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig)’s best friend Monica (Ellen Page). Gerwig can be nothing but dull in her role as written, and Page is as irresistible as she is cracked up to be only to the object of her manipulative ways. This story slips in a serious idea about how art and architecture can enrich lives, in opposition to the Ozymandias melancholia idea, but it’s a peripheral detail in the fizz-free tale.
The story of the newlyweds in Rome chasing a job opportunity for the young Woody-clone Harry Highpants husband, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi), is the silliest, trumping even the details of Jerry’s avant-garde operatic creations with its “all he needs is a good root” message. In fact, perhaps this is the line Woody used to run with women: you can relieve me of my awkward inept style by initiating me into the wonders of hot sex. Woody here gets cred as an equal-opportunity scriptwriter by giving the demure and lovely schoolteacher wife Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) her own naughty fling, although the circumstances that enable both amorous adventures defy belief. The performances in this objectionable story are uniformly charming, especially the transformation of Antonio after his encounter with luscious Anna (Penélope Cruz). I won’t even bother to elaborate my thoughts about the depiction of La Cruz as a prostitute who runs into perhaps half a dozen clients at a bourgeois garden party.
I stopped trying to keep track of the chronology of the film after the first five or six confusing transitions from one story to the next; I’m not sure whether the confusion is evidence of Woody’s whimsy, laziness, contempt for his audience, or just the unweavable timescale of the storylines, with the action of one taking place in one day, and another going from raw-talent discovery to operatic production all in the space, apparently, of one summer’s holiday in Rome. So perhaps it was just pragmatism, which could also be the only reason for the lazy framing device of the traffic cop, which at first seemed charmingly direct, but in the conclusion was simply naff.
Many people will enjoy To Rome With Love, and I’ve spent worse hours in the cinema, but even fans of Woody Allen’s oeuvre will I think admit this is not one of his better efforts.
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