‘To Rome with Love’ is unequivocally a perfectly imperfect Woody Allen comedy that uses four very funny Italian vignettes to convey distinct reflective lessons on life. With his expected all star cast, including Spanish actress Penélope Cruz, Allen extracts all the beauty and charm of Rome, while injecting his indelible quirky, witty, and yes, outlandish humor to his latest narrative. At times you will laugh thunderously, but I must confess, for some brief points, you’ll be swept into bouts of a story gone astray, tethered to repetitive and stationary dialogue, unlike his previous film ‘Midnight in Paris’ which had a much tighter script. But even in his hiccup moments, Allen eventually finds a way to return the story to an intelligible, entertaining and pleasing culmination. This is not one of his top ten masterworks, but it does possess enough moments of utter brilliance worth your reveling in.
The plot begins with a traffic officer, an everyday Roman, giving us a succinct exposition about the millions of stories Rome provides on a daily basis. He then highlights four vignettes that introduce our characters and their intrinsic and comical stories: a well-known American architect reliving his youth; an average middle-class Roman who suddenly finds himself Rome’s biggest celebrity; a young provincial couple drawn into separate romantic encounters; and an American opera director endeavoring to put a singing mortician on stage (by far the funniest of them all).
Each of the four stories told here have its share of comical strengths and weaknesses, but perhaps the best written one is Alec Baldwin’s. His is the most ambiguously interesting and substantial of the tales told. It’s ingenious, sharp, engrossing and uses many artistic tricks reminiscent from ‘Annie Hall’ to convey Allen’s existential message.
Baldwin plays a well-known American architect named John who is vacationing in Rome, where he once lived in his youth. Walking in his former neighborhood he encounters Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young man not unlike himself. As he watches Jack fall head-over-heels for Monica (Ellen Page), his girlfriend Sally’s (Greta Gerwig) dazzling and flirtatious friend, John relives one of the most romantically painful episodes of his own life. Throughout, John, for some inexplicable and mysterious reason, slips in and out of scenes, begging the question – is John reliving flashbacks of his youth as an imagined young Jack, or is Jack a real person who is getting wise romantic advise from a sage in John? Whatever the answer is, this is something that Allen has done deliberately. According to Allen, the safest way to view this imaginative and enigmatic device is with Alec’s character taking a walk down memory lane, meeting his youth in spirit, remembering what had gone on, the mistakes he made, and having that as a memory he never got over. Jack can be said to be John’s youth without being young John in flashback.
The second most astute and insightful episode, though not as abridged as the aforementioned, is the strange and riddling story of Leopoldo Pisanello (Roberto Benigni). He is an exceptionally boring guy, who wakes up one morning and finds himself one of the most famous men in Italy without reason. Soon the paparazzi trail his every move and question his every motivation. As Leopoldo grows accustomed to the varied seductions of the limelight, he gradually realizes the cost of fame. The ending is profound and paradoxical. Just looking at Benigni can crack a rib from how funny he looks and acts.
Penélope Cruz in the meantime teams up in another Woody Allen movie since she won her first Oscar for Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (which was also the first for a Spanish actress) to play a witty and very seductive Italian escort. Regrettably, I don’t think she’ll be winning any Oscars in this role. She is in the least interesting of the storylines. Cruz plays Anna, a hired prostitute who ends up becoming a teacher, companion and therapist in the life of Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) who has arrived from the provinces in Rome hoping to impress his straight-laced relatives with his lovely new wife Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) so that he can get an upscale big city job. Through comic misunderstanding and chance, he and his wife are separated for the day. Antonio ends up passing off Cruz as his wife, while Milly (his real wife) is romanced by legendary movie star Luca Salta (Antonio Alban). Cruz is a fantastic actress who showcases her ability to act more than just in Spanish and English. Here she speaks Italian with ease and authenticity, as if she were born in Rome. It’s a remarkable skill for any actor to do, specially in movies. Curious enough, her next movie is “Venuto al Mundo” an Italian film.
But the undeniably funniest storyline is that of undertaker Giancarlo (renowned tenor Fabio Armiliato) who sings arias worthy of La Scala while only lathering up in the shower. What is also special about this vignette is Woody Allen. Not only did Allen write and direct the film, but he also makes his first acting appearance since 2006’s forgettable movie – ‘Scoop’ – starring Hugh Jackman. Convinced that talent that prodigious cannot be kept hidden, retired Jerry (Woody Allen) clutches at the opportunity to promote Giancarlo and rejuvenate his own career as an opera director. There is some really hilarious scenes that will make you embarrass yourself from how loud you will laugh. Whenever you encounter a movie that can provoke such reactions, it is an obligation to see. This chapter alone is worth the price of your ticket. Also, Allen’s return to acting is a big deal since we get to see in action the man who created the neurotic persona in film. It really is priceless to see him act. He’ll also surprisingly be acting in “Fading Gigolo” with Colombian actress Sofia Vergara, a John Turturro film releasing in 2013.
Overall, Allen has hits and misses here, though, the brilliant comedic moments, full of unmanageable laughter, do outweigh the slow and dragging moments.
As I watched the last minutes of ‘To Rome with Love’, I fondly remembered my visit to Roma with much enthusiasm. It left me with a nostalgic feeling about its glorious past and its restored faith in its present and future. Very similarly, it is in many ways the way I look at Allen’s milestone film career – one with a great past, but with a renewed sense of creative confidence that reminds me why he is a global cinematic treasure. It’s not invention, Allen has clearly gotten a second wind, and overall, it has been fun to watch.