Last year’s Midnight in Paris was drenched in fantasy, so much so that its own lead (Owen Wilson) travels back in time to the era of nostalgia itself. Encountering the artistic greats and famed ex-pats of the roaring ‘20s, Wilson serves as yet another Woody Allen stand-in, an incredulous passenger in time travel. With gleeful cameos by F. Scott (Tim Hiddleston) and Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and a show-stealing Hemingway (Corey Stoll), the film brought a buoyancy to Allen’s usual cynicism.
The usual quips were all there, but Allen’s love affair with cities brought a tenderness to Midnight in Paris. He gave us our literary heroes as we dreamed they would be, certainly not as tragic or woefully human as they were. Audiences lapped up the writer/director’s refreshed attitude, making it is his highest grossing film and adding another Academy Award to his shelf -- not that he seems to care.
Allen’s recent rhythm this past decade has brought us a new film nearly every year, a rapid pace that begs the question, can he keep it up? To Rome With Love steps away from the singular narrative and instead weaves a myriad of vignettes set in the titular city. Despite a wobbly introduction in the streets of Rome, we meet Allen’s newest characters, both Italian and American, as they experience the city in their own way.
Woody Allen returns as an actor for the first time since 2006’s Scoop, playing his usual game and fidgeting appropriately. A retired opera director, Jerry (Allen) and his dry, psychiatrist wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) fly to Rome to meet their daughter Hayley’s (Alison Pill) Italian fiance, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Meanwhile, newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tibieri) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) have their loyalties tested between mistaken identities, brazen prostitutes (Penelope Cruz), Italian heartthrob celebrities, and losing their way.
Leopoldo Pisanello (Roberto Benigni) is an ordinary man who wakes up one morning to find himself hounded by paparazzi, interviewed on the morning news, and fending off hordes of exotic women. Benigni is delightfully erratic as ever, his expressive face a welcome treat as a bewildered Pisanello navigates the world of the rich and famous. Allen’s commentary on “celebrity” is barely commentary; mostly, he toys with Pisanello to poke fun at the very industry he himself thrives in.
Lastly, Alec Baldwin brings his rich purr to Allen’s ensemble as John, a former ex-pat returned to his old stomping grounds. Amidst the young Americans who populate Trastevere, the ancient & hip of the city, John meets Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a 20-something aspiring architect. John observes the similarities to his own past as Jack’s girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) introduces him to her friend Monica (Ellen Page), a struggling actress.
Page and Baldwin hold tight to each scene, drawing the audience away from the other stories and into their own. Baldwin’s wry charm never falters as he narrates Jack’s romantic demise. He crops up out of nowhere to offer his two cents, a twinkle in his eye. In her loose fitting clothing and spindly legs, Page seems an unlikely choice for a beguiling temptress. Nonetheless, with doe eyes and calculating smiles, she ever so subtly pulls it off -- as a more offbeat, Allen-esque siren.
The focus on the narrow streets of Trastevere, the rooftop gardens overlooking the Colosseum, and an unending series of piazzas reveal the city as a character in its own right. Woody Allen remarked, “So much of the action and activity in Rome takes place outside, in its cafes and streets. It’s an amazing city just to walk in. The city itself is a work of art.” Many may wish he had included a sequence akin to Midnight in Paris’ quiet opening, but each scene populates a new locale to drink in.
Italians themselves protest that Allen’s vision of the city was skewed. True, he comes at it from an obviously American perspective -- a bourgeois perspective with catered cocktail parties, opera houses, and apartments overlooking the Roman skyline. But would we expect anything less from Woody Allen? Unless you have lived in the city and truly give yourself up to it (and, yet, even then...), it’s difficult not to be swept up in Rome’s vibrancy and palpable history.
To Rome With Love is a giddy romp through the cobblestoned streets of Rome, with all the trappings of a usual Woody Allen picture -- but ultimately falls just short of its predecessor. Punctuated with laughs every few minutes, there is no doubt that the man has not lost his sense of humor. It does lack a little of the soul that’s infused in Midnight in Paris, and dips into drawn out cliche every so often. Still, a “good” Woody Allen is miles better than most of the “great” out there. Fans of Bananas, Hannah and Her Sisters, and those neurotic Woody Allen sensibilities will have a blast watching his puppets stumble through his interpretations of love, sex, and fame.
For Fans Of: Vicky Christina Barcelona, Bananas, Woody Allen
Why We Like It: gorgeous shots of Rome, wry humor, Alec Baldwin, Ellen Page
'To Rome With Love' premieres Friday, June 15, 2012 at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and will be released in theaters June 22, 2012.