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Monday, July 2, 2012

To Rome With Love

I’ve never been to Rome, and perhaps the best compliment I can give to Woody Allen’s latest movie is that it caused me to resolve to mend that oversight. Though the Eternal City doesn’t quite become as vibrant a character within the film as the City of Lights did in last year’s Midnight in Paris, or as New York has in so many of Allen’s films, Rome does look like a very nice place to visit, or even to stay for a while.

The characters in this anthology are comprised of a mix of tourists, natives, and those who’ve come to stay. Each of them seems taken with the endless possibilities offered and the experiences to be had. They are also for the most part men and women longing to establish themselves and their work, perhaps feeling pressured to live up to the permanence of the city around them. More than one character makes reference to Ozymandias, Shelley’s foolhardy king who failed to consider that his achievements would one day be forgotten. It’s an apt metaphor, no matter how hard Allen runs it into the ground through repetition.

The four stories that make up To Rome With Love are not at all connected, which becomes refreshing when one considers what kind of absurd contrivances would have been necessary to get this disparate crowd in the same room. As it is, the only justification offered for telling these stories together comes in the form of a traffic-cop narrator, a device which is mercifully dropped without mention.

As for the stories: Woody Allen and Judy Davis fly to Rome after their daughter’s whirlwind romance finds her engaged to an Italian leftist lawyer. Allen’s character gets off to a rocky start when he performs his typical nebbishy act on the plane when it experiences minor turbulence, but like the plane itself, Allen settles in for a smooth ride to the finish. His character is a retired producer of operas, and his old fires start burning when he discovers that his daughter’s new father-in-law is a naturally gifted singer who has never performed anywhere but the shower.

Jesse Eisenberg is a young architect whose solid relationship with Greta Gerwig is severely tested when her spirited and adventurous friend Monica (Ellen Page) comes to crash with them after a bad breakup. Eisenberg’s inner monologue is dramatized by his mentor, an older architect played by a very funny Alec Baldwin.

Roberto Benigni is a sad-sack office worker who can’t get anyone to listen to his opinions until one day, without explanation, he is the hottest celebrity in Rome, with paparazzi hounding him at every opportunity and breathlessly asking him banal questions such as what he had for breakfast.

The final story features a pair of newlyweds from the Italian countryside who are settling in Rome. Unfamiliarity with the byzantine streets and several miscommunications lead to the two being separated for the day, and each spends the day with a surrogate spouse. He is forced to have a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) pose as his wife at an important function, and she winds up bonding with a legendary film star.

The Allen story and the newlywed plot each build to fantastically constructed farces, while the Benigni story is more consistently funny throughout. The love triangle between Eisenberg, Gerwig, and Page is the only disappointment, as it fizzles out and limps to a conclusion. In such a large ensemble it is perhaps inevitable that some characters and actors will get the short end of the stick, and here Gerwig is the unfortunate one. Her character never becomes fully involved in the story, and because of that it is hard to become too interested in whether Eisenberg will stay faithful to her.

Still, after a rough twenty minutes or so, a remarkable number of the film’s jokes start to land, and the comic resolutions offered are so good as to forgive the number of contrivances required to bring them about.

At 76 years old, Woody Allen is still making a film every year, and while To Rome With Love is unlikely to earn him his second Best Original Screenplay Oscar in a row, it is a very pleasant trip to an inscrutable city.

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