What do you do when you've just directed the film that became the biggest hit of your career and scored you another Oscar? Well, if you're Woody Allen, you take your act on the road once more, trading the rain-soaked streets of Paris after midnight for sun-dappled Rome. The iconic writer/director's forty-second film (stop and take that in for a moment... that's 42 films in almost as many years; respect man, respect) is To Rome, With Love, a quartet of fancifully comic -- and, as the title suggests, romantic -- stories set against the backdrop of Italy's historic, absurdly picturesque capital city.
Like Midnight in Paris, the four tales in To Rome, With Love are lighter than air in terms of their sense of humor, but also carry the same melancholic undertone that has underlined many of Allen's late-career comedies. That small, but detectable, tinge of sadness makes this movie -- like its predecessor -- linger in its mind longer than your average rom-com filled with beautiful people falling in and out love in a beautiful setting. That's not to say, of course that To Rome, With Love will be confused for top-tier Woody. As with all anthology films, some of the individual stories work better than others and let's just say that longtime fans will notice certain... um repetitions from his past work cropping up here in terms of specific lines and character beats. Perhaps the movie's biggest flaw is Allen's curious decision to cut between each of the four separate short stories instead of presenting them as standalone tales; oftentimes, just as one narrative is building up a decent head of steam, he promptly cuts to another thread and strangles that momentum. (This approach would make more sense if all of the stories ultimately turned out to be interconnected in some way. Honestly though, it's almost just as well that they don't; after all, the last thing this film needed to be was Woody Allen's Crash.) I'm going to correct that mistake for this review and discuss each of the four short films individually so you know which deliver and which fall short.
Starring: Woody Allen, Judy Davis, Alison Pill, Flavio Parenti, Fabio Armiliato
Suggested Title: 'O Sole Mio
Thumbnail Synopsis: Arriving it Rome to meet the parents of his daughter's (Pill) fiancé, ex-opera director Jerry (Allen) discovers that his potential son-in-law's father Giancarlo (Armiliato) is one of the world's best undiscovered tenors. There's just one catch: he can only take full advantage of his voice when he's singing in the shower.
It's been six years since Allen last appeared in front of the camera, so a lot of the charm of this particular tale comes in seeing Woody onscreen again doing his familiar, yet still enjoyable New Yawk Nebbish shtick. It must be said that age has caught up with him: Allen's once rapid-fire delivery has slowed considerably and it's clear that the other actors in the frame are mindful of slowing down their own pace to stay in sync with him. Still, his timing is as sharp as ever -- when Allen tosses off a zinger like "Don't psychoanalyze me. Many have tried, all have failed," it's impossible not to chuckle. After a lackadaisical beginning with Jerry and his caustic wife Phyllis (Davis, reuniting with Allen for the first time since 1998's Celebrity) meeting their future in-laws, the short kicks into gear when the forcibly retired opera director discovers Giancarlo's melodious shower-enhanced singing voice and promptly attempts to turn him into the next great singing sensation. When his first shower-free audition falls short, however, Jerry hits upon the strangely brilliant notion of staging a full opera with Giancarlo appearing onstage in a portable shower stall. It's a terrific visual gag that Allen is careful not to run into the ground. Although the opera sequences are the highlight, this story also effectively functions as a portrait of a frustrated artist -- Jerry -- who can't accept that he's no longer in the position to make art. One gets the sense that if funding for his movies ever dried up, Allen would be as unhappy and out-of-sorts as Jerry is before he discovers Giancarlo and gets his creative mojo back. The highest compliment I can pay this particular story is that it feels like a tale Allen might have penned for his classic short story collection, Without Feathers before deciding that it would work better in a movie.
Best Moment: You can't top Giancarlo being wheeled onto the stage in front of a packed house in his shower stall.
Weakest Moment: While Pill and Parenti are charming as the young couple in love, they are minor presences in the story at best, which makes their solo scenes drag somewhat.
Overall Grade: B+
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page
Suggested Title: Me and My Shadow
Thumbnail Synopsis: While on vacation in Rome, successful architect John (Baldwin) decides to revisit the neighborhood he lived in as a young American abroad and winds up meeting an architecture student named Jack (Eisenberg) who is about to get caught up in a love triangle that feels all too familiar to his older counterpart.
The elements of fantasy that recur throughout To Rome With Love's four stories are at their most pronounced in this slender fable, as John gets the chance to relive his past directly through Jack's experience. If only Allen handled the transition from reality to fantasy a little more smoothly; as it is, some viewers might spend the first half of the story somewhat confused about the exact nature of John and Jack's relationship, especially since Baldwin occasionally interacts with some of these figments from his past instead of just observing the situation as a ghostly presence. Once it's clear what's going on though, the story moves into more interesting, if familiar territory. Currently living in domestic bliss with good-natured Sally (Gerwig), Jack finds his head and heart knocked for a loop when her best friend Monica (Page) arrives for a visit. The gag here is that even though Monica is supposedly a phony intellectual and modest at best in the looks department (although I can't be the only one who finds Page absurdly pretty), she's catnip to men and even Jack can't resist her charms. (If you've seen Manhattan, you'll recall that Allen pulled a similar joke when he revealed that the great lover from Diane Keaton's past was... Wallace Shawn.) And despite the fact that John is on hand to warn his younger self away from the heartache he remembers so vividly, Jack inevitably makes the same mistakes all over again. Regret over past crimes (and misdemeanors) of the heart has long been a theme of Allen's work, so it's no surprise that he's returning to that well again here. And while it's not one of his strongest, most incisive explorations of this topic, the cast and the setting give it some vibrancy.
Best Moment: Eisenberg and Page exchange a stolen kiss while spending a rainy night exploring some of Rome's ruins.
Weakest Moment: The idea that Eisenberg could somehow grow up to look like Alec Baldwin.
Overall Grade: B
Starring: Penélope Cruz, Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi
Suggested Title: Love and Marriage, Italian Style
Thumbnail Synopsis: Leaving their small provincial village for the bright lights of Rome, newlyweds Antonio (Tiberi) and Milly (Mastronardi) accidentally get separated and experience a series of comic misadventures that test their commitment to each other. Also, Penélope Cruz plays a hooker, just because.
Like I said up top, To Rome With Love is filled with fantastical elements -- including the notion that there are call girls out there who are as gorgeous as Penélope Cruz. It's a good thing that Allen had that particular flight of fancy, though, because Cruz is the best thing about this otherwise wan entry, which suffers from two bland leads and some leaden attempts at farce. After arriving in Rome, Milly heads off to the salon to prepare to meet her husband's well-of and very judgmental relatives, but winds up getting lost in the city's famously twisty streets. Meanwhile, a case of mistaken identity leads Cruz's call girl to knock on Antonio's door just as his family arrives and literally catches him with his pants down. With no other option, Antonio is forced to pass Cruz off as his wife and the two spend the day touring elite Rome spots, where Cruz obviously stands out like a sore thumb. Meanwhile, Milly happens upon a movie set and allows herself to be wooed by the film's handsome, ladykilling leading man. It's all very flat and forced, but the final five minutes do possess a certain amount of charm, as husband and wife reunite to discover that their matrimonial bond is actually stronger due to their extracurricular sexual activities. Note to Soon-Yi: you may want to have a talk with your husband about this.
Best Moment: Cruz attends a high-society where half of her client list is also present.
Weakest Moment: Milly's bedroom encounter with the movie star takes a turn that's too fantastical even for this film.
Overall Grade: C
Starring: Roberto Benigni
Suggested Title: Roma Shore
Thumbnail Synopsis: Lowly clerk and devoted family man Leopoldo (Benigni) awakens one morning to discover that he's become the most famous person in Italy, with cameras and screaming fans trailing his every step.
If you had told me going into To Rome With Love that the movie's best segment would star Roberto Benigni -- an actor I've actively despised since Life is Beautiful -- I would have found that more unbelievable than his live-action Pinocchio feature. But, low and behold, Benigni is marvelous in this very funny reality TV spoof, which recaptures some of the zaniness of Allen's "earlier, funnier" movies like Bananas and Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). Under Allen's direction, Benigni tamps down on some of his more flamboyantly annoying tendencies and gives one of his funniest performances since his days stealing scenes in Jim Jarmusch movies. While I have a hard time believing that Allen has ever watched a full episode of Jersey Shore or TMZ on TV, he still skewers faux-celebrity culture and the media industry that feeds it quite effectively. Despite not doing much of anything, Leopoldo's star continues to grow and grow, until he's bedding models and nabbing tables at the hottest restaurants. He's so famous, even his own wife and children aren't perturbed by his new lifestyle -- after all, living large is what's expected of you when you're a celebrity. But never mind the social commentary; this short succeeds because it's just funny. It's nice to see that Allen can still be silly and absurd when the spirit moves him.
Best Moment: Benigni giving studiously serious answers to inane questions ("Boxers or briefs?") on the red carpet.
Weakest Moment: The ending struggles a little too much to put a moral on top of the blast of silliness preceding it.
Overall Grade: A-
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