Roberto Benigni as Leopoldo Pisanello, an ordinary clerk who suddenly, inexplicably, and absurdly finds he’s become the most interesting man in Italy, desperately running from his unwanted celebrity in one of the four---or is it five?---short stories that make up Woody Allen’s latest, To Rome With Love.
Made me squirm in my seat, shade my eyes painful, the sections of Woody Allen's To Rome With Love dealing with the romantic triangle involving Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, and Ellen Page.
Part of the pain came from how it drew psychic blood. Does every young intellectual, artistically inclined young male grad student go through a summer during which while he's seemingly happily living with the good-hearted blonde he's planning to marry, whom he knows he should marry, have his head turned by a beautiful but neurotic, intellectually pretentious, self-infatuated, yet sexy as all get out brunette artiste and despite himself (literally in the movie) set out to destroy his own future happiness?
Or did Woody crib directly from my life?
Ok. I wasn't living in Rome and the ghost of my future self didn’t show up to warn me I was heading for big trouble. But the basics of the story were so familiar that I cringed every time the scene shifted back to this threesome.
That was part of it.
Another part of it was the familiarity. I don't mean in its being familiar to that summer in my life. I mean in its being an old, old story. I was living out a cliche and To Rome With Love retells the same one without adding much more to it than I did except Alec Baldwin, which is something, but still.
To Rome With Love is four separate short films-- five, depending on whether you see one of them as actually two that share characters---that interrupt each other and fight for the audience's attention and affection.
Besides the triangle, there’s:
Roberto Benigni as an ordinary cubicle worker and family man who suddenly and inexplicably finds himself declared the most interesting man in Italy, an instant celebrity besieged by journalists, paparazzi, and obsessed fans following his every move and demanding to know every little thing about him---what he had for breakfast, the instructions he gave his barber, his choice in underwear.
Alessandro Tiberi and and Alessandra Mastronardi as Antonio and Milly, a pair of newlywed country mice come to Rome for their honeymoon with the added purpose of meeting and impressing Antonio’s snobby relatives, their plans going awry when Milly gets lost in the streets of the unfamiliar city while looking for a place to get her hair done and Antonio’s relatives show up at their hotel room while Antonio is in bed with a prostitute, played by Penelope Cruz, whom he impulsively introduces to his aunts and uncles as Milly. This is the one that may be two: Milly’s adventures in which she comes under the lustful eye of one of her favorite movie stars and Antonio’s desperate attempts to pass off the pro as his innocent new bride.
And Woody Allen, returning to act in one of his own films for the first time since Scoop, looking a little frail and uncertain but still deft at timing the delivery of his quintessential one-liners, as an unhappily and, we suspect, not voluntarily retired opera director who discovers that his daughter’s prospective father-in-law is, at least in voice, the reincarnation of Enrico Caruso and Allen’s ticket back into the opera business, if only the man didn’t have one little problem---he can only sing in the shower.
None of these shorts, although lively and funny, are inspired or fall on the floor hilarious, but the triangle story is the least funny and most pedestrian in direction. More painful than that, however, is that it's the one that most likely will remind you of Allen at his post-farcical best, echoing Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters. It had me thinking wistfully, What talent he's cast here! If only he could have worked the same magic for them that he worked for himself and Diane Keaton way back when.
That's unfair. And it diminishes the magic he did work and the magic Page and Eisenberg worked for him. The main reason this part of To Rome With Love is so painful to watch is their convincing and almost too honest performances.
As Jack, an aspiring architect in love with love a sweet-natured grad student (Gerwig) but irresistibly drawn to her supposed best friend, Eisenberg does a fine job of showing how a decent and basically moral guy consciously and stubbornly pursues a desire he knows is not only self-destructive but wrong. He makes Jack Allen’s best explanation so far of “the heart wants what it wants.”
As Monica, an out of work actress keeping her skills sharp by acting the part of herself or the more interesting self she believes she should be, Page draws a devastating caricature of a type she's probably all too familiar with and somewhere there's a former drama school classmate or cast mate screaming bloody murder in embarrassed outrage and another unselfaware young actress taking notes. Her character is the reason never to date actresses and the explanation for why they're irresistible. From the second she appears on screen Page might as well be wearing a sign that says Run! Run for Your Life and Don't Look Back! There'd be fine print below, however: Secondary Warning. Warning you I'm no good for you is one of my best tricks for capturing your attention. And in even finer print below that. Tertiary Warning. My seeming honesty in warning you of my tricks is another one of my tricks. Monica expects you to understand it's all a performance and to admire and applaud her for it even as she's breaking your heart and ruining your life.
As I said, this is all very painful, in three separate ways. But it’s also fun.
And that answers questions that invariably get asked every time Allen releases a new movie and fans, who know better, walk out of the theater once again disappointed that this one too doesn't measure up to Woody's best. What was the point? Why did he bother? Why does he bother? Why do we bother?
Because it can still be fun.
No matter how weak or disappointing any of these late-inning Allen movie might be, there’s always some fun to be had watching his ensembles of excellent actors given interesting characters to play, intelligent lines to say, and great jokes to deliver. Well, except for Hollywood Ending and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.
And Vicky Christina Barcelona. I’m sorry. I persist in hating that one.
It’s fun, despite the pain, to watch Page work her femme fatale as little intellectual girl lost act on Eisenberg. It's fun to watch Alec Baldwin toning it down from 30 Rock (and his real life) and giving us a glimpse of the aging romantic lead he might have become if he hadn't discovered he was funny.
It's fun to see Benigni reined in by a disciplined and disciplining director who knows how to direct slapstick.
It's fun watching Penelope Cruz wear the shortest, tightest, most cleavage revealing little red dress in movie history with the same dash, nerve, and casual authority as Christopher Reeve wore the cape, Harrison Ford wore the fedora, and Vivian Leigh wore the drapes. It's fun watching Mastronardi out-adorable Cruz. It's fun watching bald, big-gutted, forty-seven years old and not looking a day over fifty Antonio Albanese, strut and smolder as the absolutely convinced of his own reputation as the sexiest man in Italian cinema sexiest man in Italian cinema.
It's fun to watch Judy Davis, period, even though she isn't given enough to do.
It's not great fun, and it's not always fun. But there's enough fun for a pleasant night out at the movies. Enough for me, at any rate.
When Midnight in Paris came out last summer, critics and fans were generally in happy agreement that it wasn't just the best Allen had produced in a decade. Not much competition there. It was ranked with his minor masterpieces of the 1990s, Sweet and Lowdown, Deconstructing Harry, and Bullets Over Broadway. Woody, we gushed collectively, had returned to form. I think that might have been a bit over-generous. We were relieved that he had apparently shaken off the lethargic funk of the Scarlett Johansson period and the gloomy self-revisionist trilogy of Cassandra's Dream, Whatever Works, and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. But even if that was the case, that was a very good development. I was smitten by Midnight in Paris. I'm not sure how smitten I'd still be if I watched it again. But if it isn't as good as Bullets Over Broadway, it is (probably) as enjoyable as Mighty Aphrodite, Manhattan Murder Mystery, and Everyone Says I Love You.
Keep in mind I'm one of the few who enjoyed Small Time Crooks.
If Midnight in Paris was the beginning of a trend back to the good old days---with the ironic theme that the good old days are never as good as the even better even older days---then To Rome With Love continues the trend at least in being infused with a more antic and good-natured comic spirit than the movies Allen made between 2001 (Curse of the Jade Scorpion) and 2010 (Tall Dark Stranger).
It’s not as good as Midnight in Paris, however good Midnight in Paris actually was. By design it’s not as coherent. There are no central and centering characters whose plights and troubles actually matter to us. There are no supporting characters who anchor To Rome With Love the way Kathy Bates’ Gertrude Stein and Corey Stoll’s Ernest Hemingway held down Midnight in Paris. There are no moments as transplendent as Adrian Brody declaring himself "Dali!"
But it has its own moments, although most of them seem to involve Benigni. I can’t decide if my favorite is the one in which he’s ambushed while he’s shaving by yet another journalist or when he discovers too late that he likes being a celebrity.
There's another difference between the two movies that's neither good nor bad, just indicative.
Allen didn't make To Rome With Love as any kind of sequel to Midnight in Paris and it's not the valentine to Rome that the latter was to Paris. In Midnight in Paris, the city was essential to the characters’ existence, and not just because Owen Wilson kept telling us so. In To Rome With Love, Rome is a comedic backdrop. It's a shorthand explanation for why the characters are all so volatile and nuts.
Appropriately, there are fewer of the sort of post card moments that got a little cloying in Midnight in Paris. There are some, however, and the one at the end is ravishing.
To Rome With Love, written and directed by Woody Allen, starring Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, and Ellen Page. Now in theaters.