(Woody Allen, 2012)
A typically all-star cast assemble to imbalanced effect in Woody Allen’s 2012 offering To Rome With Love, a jovially lightweight attempt at revisiting the anthology approach to filmmaking which brought his Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) a reasonable amount of acclaim. TRWL is not as consistent or consistently funny as that film (an early paradigm of his retrospective ‘early funny’ period), but it does see Allen bringing himself back into a version of the present day (no matter how disparate the four timelines appear to be) after Midnight in Paris’ (2011) obsessions with the past. It’s all very twee and inoffensively enjoyable, combining passé ruminations on life, sex, love, marriage and celebrity with yet another picture postcard aesthetic idealisation of a great city: this time the titular Rome.
Making a career out of condensing and replaying his auteurist idols’ thematics (and occasionally their cinematographic attitudes) for his own body of work – though fitting them with his own metaphysical concerns and sense of humour, this is Allen sculpting another paean to his cinematic poster boy Federico Fellini, his own Roma (1972) so to speak.
Giving himself his first role since 2006’s docile Scoop, Allen stars in the film’s strongest story as Jerry, husband to Phyllis (Judy Davis, in her fourth Allen film) and father to Alison Pill’s Hayley, an American tourist whose visit to Rome is complemented by a relationship-cum-proposal to Italian pro bono lawyer Michelangelo. Initially reticent towards his prospective son-in-law’s family and their communist sensibilities, Jerry – an unhappily retired director of flamboyant opera, blissfully ignorant to his critics back in New York- becomes enamoured with Michelangelo’s father Giancarlo, a mortician who has the vocal range of an operatic wunderkind but only whilst in the shower. Jerry’s infatuation with bringing Giancarlo’s gift to the stage results in some curiously unorthodox (for Allen, at least) visual jokes that see a range of well-received productions centred on a showering Giancarlo, who scrubs and sings his heart out.
Elsewhere Alec Baldwin stars as John, a celebrated American architect who may or may not be linked to Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a student studying architecture in the Eternal City, who he bumps into seemingly at random. Inexplicably, John quickly becomes something of a mercurial figure, a wise Jiminy Cricket-like voice of reason quick to give relationship advice to Jack, his girlfriend Sally (a wasted Greta Gerwig) and her sultry friend Monica (Ellen Page), a pseudointellectual bisexual who channels the more caustic women in Allen’s back stock (Christina Ricci in Anything Else, etc). A similarly unanswerable plot is the one that sees Roberto Benigni’s lowly office drone suddenly becoming a star, hounded day and night by paparazzi who strive on uncovering his personal idiosyncrasies (“What did you have for breakfast?” “Do you wear boxers or briefs?”). Much like all the narrative ‘tricks’ that numerously appear in Allen’s high concept works, from The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) to the aforementioned Midnight in Paris, the mysterious and playful concepts depicted in these two segments go unexplained, with the emphasis and much of the comedy (when it arrives) being on their effects on the characters rather than on originations.
Finally, in a variation on Fellini’s The White Sheik (1952), Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi play Antonio and Milly respectively, a newlywed couple whose honeymoon in Rome immediately gets off on the wrong foot. Losing her way whilst searching for a hair salon (a sequence that sees Allen’s camera taking roving sweeps around the emblematic sites, bolstered by DP Darius Khondji’s translucent cinematography), Milly finds herself stumbling from a film set to the bed of its leading star to the arms of an armed robber, whilst Antonio falls prey to mistaken identity and has to pass off trashy hooker Anna (Penélope Cruz) as his newlywed to a gaggle of stern aunts and uncles. Easily the most disposable footnote in an altogether piecemeal film, this section highlights a lack of footing – in conjunction with the other three’s tighter plotting – whilst showing a square drawing of prostitution; Cruz’s Anna (a sobering flipside to her Oscar winning María Elena in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)) is far removed from Allen’s previous and altogether more rounded prostitute characters, namely Mira Sorvino’s Academy Award winning Linda Ash in Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and even Hazelle Goodman’s Cookie in Deconstructing Harry (1997), his only prominent role for a black actor.
Fragmented, distractible and in need of a more imaginative edit, To Rome With Love is lesser Woody Allen that exists in a lesser Allen epoch, a stage where every instalment in his healthy catalogue is given an unfair amount of critical conjecture. This does meander around a loose spine, the graphic equivalent of his process of sorting through and marrying together his draw full of notes and ideas (a work process shown in Robert B. Weide’s Woody Allen: A Documentary (2011)), but save for dated and laboured quips (and an ill-placed effects shot), there is a pay-off to the scattered mishmash.