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To Rome With Love – Woody Allen


Woody and Penelope Cruz



To Rome With L0ve – Woody Allen

Domestic disagreement on this one: my wife, who liked Midnight In Paris much more than I did was lukewarm about Woody Allen’s latest comedy of manners, mores and the absurdity of love and life. I am the opposite. To Rome With Love for me is an unpretentious carousel of a movie, its four stories gently circling before us accompanied by a cheerful soundtrack of popular Italian tunes led by the subversive Volare which you always recognize, wish you didn’t, then can’t get out of your head.

Part of the reason for this lack of connubial unity perhaps lies in the fact that TRWL is free of that raw patch of aesthetic skin marked ‘Owen Wilson’ that spoilt Midnight in Paris for me. My wife is more generously free of Wilson-phobia.

Find the allusion, catch the reference, are very popular parlour games for many critics reviewing Woody Allen films. As ever there are plenty of examples here but I’ll establish my nerdy credentials simply by remarking a surprisingly voluptuous Penelope Cruz teasingly recreating a youthful Sophia Loren – more woman than any man could hope to handle – if you’ll forgive the expression. Also, as with Midnight, Woody’s love of all things European emerges through a distinctly continental tone to the film and a welcome feeling of warmth towards the glory that still is Rome. Welcome, because warmth is a rare emotion in most of Woody’s always detached, sometimes icy movies.

It is good here to see him embracing the close-up which he used to, for him, rare but great effect in Midnight. While his writing doesn’t have the manic urgency of earlier films and frantic absurdity has given way to a leisurely irony and wry observation, Midnight and now this film do have a comfortable intimacy many of his earlier films lack.

I’d have liked a few more one-liners but those we get are vintage. As ever with recent Woody Allen films To Rome With Love arouses more gentle smiles than vulgar laughter. However there is one sublime moment that is pure, iconic Woody Allen: rigorously logical, visually delicious and thoroughly, utterly ridiculous and absurd. A priceless moment which somehow captures the essence of this intelligent, funny, talented little guy who replied recently when asked by a critic nerd what, after his preoccupation with mortality in his early films, was his attitude to death now? “I’m still against it” he chirruped. The man’s a treasure.

US tourist Hayley (Alison Pill from Sorkin’s Newsroom) asks directions of Michelangelo, no not that one, a live one; who being Italian and no mug when a pretty girl asks for help, shows her the way and romance develops. Mi (not ‘my’ or ‘me’)chelangelo is idealistic and politically left wing – when in Rome and all that…. Things segue swiftly from Hayley meeting Michelangelo’s undertaker father Fabio and charming mum, to welcoming Hayley’s parents incoming like a couple of unguided missiles from the States.

Jerry (Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) have a perfect Allenesque relationship: Woody is himself disguised as a reluctantly retired music executive; she a laconic Psychotherapist – tautologous really – it’s so hard to get the b*ggers to say anything! Some cross-cultural banter ensues with Jerry having trouble with the ‘Mi’ and freaked by Mi’s ‘communism’. But he perks up when he hears Fabio singing opera in the shower revealing a wonderful operatic tenor voice. Jerry’s determination to release Fabio from his dead end job as an undertaker into the opulent world of operatic fame is one of the funniest threads in the film. Against the wishes of his wife and politically outraged son, Fabio goes along with Jerry’s ambitions for him. But first there is a minor logistical impediment to his musical fame and fortune which Jerry finally resolves with a stroke of innovative genius. And funny too.

Meanwhile: successful architect John (Alec Balwin) with a mid-life restless nostalgia re-visits his student days in Rome when his architectural dreams reached further that the shopping malls he now profitably designs. Meeting up with geeky student architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) now living very near to John’s student flat, John meets Jack’s partner Sally. When Sally’s actress friend Monica (Ellen Page) arrives fresh from a break-up and begins to go for the hapless Jack, Baldwin segues into Jack’s inner voice offering clear-eyed, cynical worldly wisdom to help prevent his sexual naiveté in succumbing to the predatory capriciousness of Monica’s ego. He fails.

Meanwhile: young marrieds Antonio and Milly arrive from the sticks for his interview for a new job. Unfamiliar with the big city and a big company Antonio is nervously unsure of himself. While Milly gets lost on a trip to the hairdresser Antonio finds himself confused with prostitute Anna’s (Penelope Cruz) pre-paid client: right room, wrong man. In the middle of Antonio protesting, we have to wonder why, that she has the wrong man and must leave, his parents, aunt and uncle arrive to meet Milly for the first time. When they of course assume the woman he is romping on the bed with is Milly, Antonio doesn’t have the courage or the guile to dis-abuse them. Thus with Anna wearing a dress that would make Julia Robert’s Pretty Woman look like a nun, the ad hoc famille head off for the Corporate bash critical to Antonio’s future career. That half the Executives at the do are all current or ex Anna clients adds to the spice.

The real Milly gets her own back though when a chance meeting with an Italian heart-throb actor she admires turns into seduction thwarted only by the timely arrival of his wife.

Finally: the delightful Roberto Benigni, happy, anonymous family man and dedicated clerk, suddenly find himself without reason or cause lionized as a celebrity and chased morning till night with paparazzi and press crawling over the minutiae of his utterly boring, uneventful life. This is a pretty clunky device for Allen to take an acid side-swipe at the capricious nature of fame, often indifferent to anything as prosaic as talent or ability. But Benigni plays it with an endearing light bewilderment that just about overcomes the contrivance and through the worldly-wise philosophizing of his ad hoc chauffeur, we get some ironic observations on the shallowness of celebrity.

Some critics have complained that these separate story threads do not intersect to achieve a narrative unity. Which makes one wonder if they’ve noticed the title. Rome is the link and the context for these disparate little slices of life. And that’s quite enough.

To Rome with Love isn’t deep or profound but displays many truthful insights; it isn’t a funny as Woody could have made with a bit more work on the screenplay; and is structure is loose and slightly chaotic in contrast to the narrative neatness of Midnight in Paris. But I prefer it to the previous film – rather over-praised I think. The mixture of dialogue and sub-titles gives it an authentic, quirky feel that I rather liked.

In the end I suppose it is a film where Woody is just trying to be funny with a tinge of sadness; not profound or auteurish. I like that. I like him so much better when he settles for that. It’s what he does best.

A nice little night out. And why not. Give the existential angst an evening off. Woody has.

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