Italian Capital Antics
It's nice to see older folk developing a taste for travel far from their usual stamping grounds, although this usually takes the form of extended holidays. What's slightly unusual about the ongoing Tour Grande du Woody Allen is that the celebrated director appears to be working all the way: having already made a number of films in London, Paris and Barcelona, Allen has now pitched up in Rome.
He claims this is simply due to the fact that he can only get funding for his films in Europe now, his American box office just not being strong enough – to be perfectly honest, I'm prepared to believe this, given the rather ropey quality of the recent Allen films I've seen. That said, I'm aware that Midnight in Paris was apparently something of a return to form – unfortunately I skipped seeing it in favour of Real Steel, which was probably a mistake. Nevertheless, the considerable success of Midnight has at least ensured that To Rome with Love (a lousy title apparently imposed upon Allen by the backers) has secured a UK release beyond the confines of the arthouse. But does it warrant it?
Well, this film is a distinctly mixed bag, in tone if not in quality. The tendency towards multiple parallel plotlines which has characterised many recent Allen movies has reached its logical conclusion, as this is a portmanteau film composed of four different stories which don't intersect (and the intercutting between them seems a little disingenuous given they clearly occur in vastly different timeframes).
Most similar to recent Allen films is the story of Jesse Eisenberg's character, who's an architect living in Rome with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig). When they are visited by Gerwig's best friend, an implausible free spirit played by Ellen Page, Eisenberg finds himself contending with an intense attraction to Page despite his existing relationship with Gerwig (this would have struck more of a chord with me had the roles of the two women been reversed – i.e. I'm developing a tendresse for Greta Gerwig – but there's no accounting for taste). The story is coloured by a peculiar device where Alec Baldwin appears as a Greek chorus-like character who comments sourly on scenes and debates characters' actions with them – but it's made clear he's not just a dramatic device but a character in his own right. What is clear is that, perhaps self-evidently, Jesse Eisenberg is uniquely well-placed amongst young performers to channel the spirit of Allen himself.
Elsewhere, Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi play young newlyweds in Rome for their honeymoon. Through a series of quirks, Tiberi finds himself having to pass off a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) as his new bride in front of his snooty family, while Mastronardi ends up being romanced by a famous movie star. This section is basically played as gentle farce, quite charmingly sexy in places, and also rather improbable – but engaging and funny all the same.
In perhaps the weakest segment, Roberto Benigni plays a middle-aged clerk who wakes up one day to discover he has inexplicably become a massive celebrity, his every doing now the subject of intense public and media interest. (This bit and the one with the newlyweds is actually performed in subtitled Italian, by the way.) Once again, it's quite funny, but utterly insubstantial, and it quite clearly couldn't support a whole movie on its own. Unlike the rest of the film, this part clearly has a message in mind, about the nature of celebrity: it's not an especially profound one, but neither is it the one most mainstream films might choose to deliver.
However, best of all is a segment starring Allen himself as the world's least visionary avante-garde opera director, in the city to meet his daughters' future in-laws. To his surprise he discovers that her future father-in-law (Fabio Armilliato) has an astounding singing voice – but only while he's singing in the shower. The preposterous tale of how Allen sets about exploiting his fabulous discovery despite this trifling inconvenience is told deadpan: it's utterly silly, but made irresistible by the presence of Allen himself, in his first appearance in one of his own films for ages. He's as twitchy and neurotic and miserable as ever, and the talent for endless, off-hand one-liners is still there, such as when he frets about his son-in-law's socialist politics: 'I could never be a Communist – I can't even share a bathroom!' And many, many more. This is the strand of the film you're always eager to get back to, almost solely due to Allen's presence in it, and one wonders how much of the weakness in his recent movies is due to his decision to stay behind the camera.
As a whole the film is very entertaining and consistently funny, much moreso than any other recent Allen movie I've seen. It's also flimsy, incredibly whimsical and frothy, with its origins as a marketing ploy for the Rome Tourist Board quite obvious. If you're not a fan of Woody Allen already, then this is probably not the film to convert you to the cause: but if you've been waiting for him to produce another properly funny film, or indeed give another great comic performance himself, then this may be what you've been waiting for.