Wednesday, July 18, 2012

TO ROME WITH LOVE: Woody Allen's Euro-Odyssey Continues


- Even if I don't love all of his work, I'll always be interested to see a new Woody Allen film. Woody's movies are so distinctly ... Woody ... that it's fun to just get inside the guy's head for a little bit and see what's on his mind these days. His movies, to me, are always fascinating to watch even when they don't 100% click - because there, on-screen, you're seeing the gears of his brain turning, seeing him work out his ever-expanding neuroses for all to see. Now, I tend to think that the chasm between the "great" Woody Allen films and the "dud" Woody Allen films is not necessarilly that great. It's why I tend to be surprised when, by turns, critics and fans hail something like Midnight in Paris as a crowning achievement, while writing off something like Anything Else as a bomb. Most of Woody's films have their moments. Most have some pointed observations, some interesting philisophical themes. But most also have implausibilities, anachronisms, awkwardness - characters that seem to exist only in a weird Woodyland where people on the street stop and discuss poetry and philosophy in casual conversation. Especially as Woody's gotten older, there's increasingly a huge disconnect between his percieved worldview and how things actually are. He usually writes characters and stories that are supposed to be grounded in reality (unlike, say, a Wes Anderson who is clearly writing from a left-of-center perspective). But again, Woody's reality sometimes feels like that of a guy who needs to get out more and live in the actual real world. And yet ... like I said, there's something to be said for a guy who is this singular of a voice. Sometimes, it's nice to imagine living in Woody's world, where nerds win the hearts of brilliant beauties, where knowledge of literature and the arts is used as romantic currency, where everyone is is smart, worldly, and well-off enough to spend their time dealing with the existential rather than the real.

Which brings me to TO ROME WITH LOVE. In many ways, I enjoyed it about as much as Midnight In Paris. For one thing, the setting is spectacular - if nothing else, the film serves as a great little travelogue. Allen still has a great eye for location, and he has an uncanny ability to film a given city and make it look both authentic and exotic and otherworldly. Allen's also got a talent for capturing the personalities of his cast members, and the cast of this film is truly top-notch. Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Penelope Cruz, Roberto Benigni, Alison Pill, Judy Davis, and Fabio Armiliato (a real-life opera singer who's hilarious playing one here) - all are great in the film. Even Woody himself gets in on the action, playing Alison Pill's father in a very amusing role - his first on-camera part in several years.

The film's story is actually four stories. Four interweaving but wholly separate stories that each tell a comedic tale set in Rome. In one story, Eisenberg plays an architecture student studying in Rome and living with his girlfriend, played by Gerwig. Her friend - a lovable but clearly crazy aspiring actress (Page) comes to visit for a few weeks, and immediately, Eisenberg is tempted by her freewheeling ways. The twist/joke here is that, one day, Eisenberg runs into an older, well-known architect played by Baldwin. the two strike up a conversation and become friendly, and Baldwin begins following his young apprentice around, giving him advice and providing a running commentary on the younger man's romantic dillemnas. Is Baldwin actually an older version of Eisenberg, magically transported back to the past to lend a hand to his younger self at a moment when he's about to - potentially - make a life-changing mistake? The movie plays coy, but it's the kind of magical-realism-infused device that Woody loves. In the second story, an ordinary man in Rome (Benigni) wakes up one day to find - suddenly and inexplicably - that he is the most famous man in Rome. He's a star, a tabloid sensation, a celebrity. But why? This, also, is Woody having fun with magical-realism. In the third bit, a young couple travels to Rome together - while happy on the surface, each longs for something a bit more adventurous from life. When they separate for the day, each finds temptation - the guy from a gorgeous prostitute (Cruz) who mistakes him for her client, the gal from a famous actor who takes a liking to her. In the final story, Woody and his wife (Davis) travel to Rome to visit their daighter and her new fiance. When they meet the fiance's family, Woody has a "eureka!" moment when he hears his in-law-to-be singing in the shower (Armiliato). It so happens that Woody's character is a retired opera director, and he sees this man - who's never sang professionally - as his ticket back to the bigtime. Only problem is, the dude can only sing well while in the shower. And so, yeah, shenanigans ensue from there.

All four stories are pretty amusing, though the one that worked for me the most was probably the Benigni segment, as it was a rare instance where Woody seems to strike at some spot-on social satire, with regards to our current Reality TV/TMZ culture. Benigni plays the whole thing brilliantly, and is very funny. This is also the segment of the movie where Woody's script is just in full-on farce mode, and it works well. It's nice to see him do something so blatantly silly and comedic. Of course, the opera-singer story is also very funny at times, but it's also much more dragged-out feeling as it's sort of a one-note joke. That said, I'll say again that Armiliato is hilarious, and also, Allen gets in a few choice quips - some vintage Woody sprinkled in there. The young couple storyline is okay, but meanders and feels a bit miscast. The actor who seduces the young woman is supposed to be a suave George Clooney type, but doesn't really pull it off. Cruz is good though, and looks stunning. The Eisenberg/Gerwig/Page/Baldwin storyline is the one with the most potential, but also the one that felt the most off to me. You've got two of the most perfect possible Woody surrogates in Eisenberg and Page, but the dialogue they're given feels like Woody at his worst - pretentious and stilted. I mean come on Woody, stop having your characters use the term "make love" in every other sentance. And why is Jesse Eisenberg dressed like an 80-year-old man? I know, some of these things are surface details, but still ... there's just a lot that felt *off* about this segment in particular. It's a feeling you get a lot when seeing Woody trying to do slice-of-life stuff these days. Maybe the segment could have worked better if it was the subject of an entire film - certainly, there's enough potential here to make a whole movie around this group of characters. But the anthology aspect of the movie - while helping the simpler, sillier segments of the movie - harms this more serious, more thematically ambitious portion.

If there's one overarching theme of the movie, I suppose it'd be that of people not being content with what they have, then coming to realize that, perhaps, things aren't quite as bad as they'd seemed. "It could always be worse." But that theme only very loosely ties things together. And the Rome setting gives the film visual continuity, but not necessarilly narrative continuity. The upside is that To Rome With Love is easy and breezy - it's pretty much enjoyable from start to finish, even if you end up wincing at some of the dialogue and characterization choices. Some critics may look for the broader critical analysis in all this ... is this "good Woody" or "bad Woody?" Is this the end of Woody's recent "streak," or a sign that his European film tour is losing steam? Is this a letdown after Midnight in Paris, or a solid companion piece. The answer is all and none. This is a "lite" movie from Allen, sure, but it's also a quintisenntially Woody Allen movie, with a lot of the strengths and flaws that you so often find in his work. But the man is now a novelty, because there are so few singular voices making movies. Especially in the summertime, when so many movies are processed, synthetic, product - it's fun and refreshing to see what now amounts to the cinematic equivalent of your neurotic comedian uncle sitting you down and telling you a couple of funny stories.

My Grade: B

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