Friday, July 13, 2012

To Rome with Love

In To Rome with Love, Phyllis (a resplendent Judy Davis, looser than I can remember ever having seen her before), the sardonically supportive wife of Woody Allen’s Jerry, tells her husband he hates being retired “because you equate retirement with death.”

A former music producer, Jerry is different from Allen in several significant ways, starting with the fact that he never achieved the fame Woody has lived with for years—and, judging by the many comic variations on that theme played out in this movie, learned to appreciate without taking it too seriously. But Jerry’s dread of retirement may well be something Woody shares. After all, if the old dog can produce a trick as neat as this one and make it seem so effortless, after close to half a century of making about a movie a year, why on earth would he want to stop?

A continuation of the grand tour of Europe he’s been making for the past decade, since American funders started turning their backs on him, To Rome With Love does to another of the great capitals of Europe what Allen always did to Manhattan, making you want nothing more, as you leave the theater, than to book a flight to the city he just marinated you in. As he did in London, Paris, and Barcelona, Allen hits all the places you’d see in a tourist bureau brochure, including the Vatican, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum, and a lot of beautiful private homes and public spaces, but he makes sure his cinematographer (Darius Khondji, who also shot Midnight in Paris) makes them look alive and enticing. Woody’s Rome is perpetually bathed in honey-colored light or dramatically lit at night, most notably in a thunderstorm whose flashes of lightning illuminate both ancient arches and the glowing faces of two young about-to-be-lovers.

Those lovers, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and Monica (Ellen Page) are two of a baker’s dozen of main characters involved in four stories. While the characters from the different stories never interact with one another, the narratives themselves blend together smoothly, thanks in part to rhyming sequences (strangers bursting in on a couple in bed, longtime partners cheating on their lovers, people touring famous places…). It also helps that, while none of the stories is entirely serious, some are sillier than others, and the funniest one serves as comic relief from the heavier moments in others.

The most absurd of them all is the conversion that overtakes Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), a mousy Italian civil servant who becomes a star when the local media develops a sudden, unaccountable fascination with him, treating his every move and thought with rapt reverence for a few weeks until they just as suddenly drop him. Jerry’s insistence on making an opera star of his daughter’s mortician father-in-law-to-be is intermittently ludicrous too, building up to the best opera-based sight gag since the Marx Brothers made A Night at the Opera.

The most serious segment is about a young married couple from a small town who arrive in Rome and get some important life lessons, with the help of a luscious prostitute (Penélope Cruz, who looks like she’s having fun). The fourth story—the romantic travails of young American architect Jack, who is torn between his sensible girlfriend and her excitingly neurotic actress friend, Monica—is essentially serious but heavily marbled with deadpan humor. Jack is shadowed throughout his segment by John (Alec Baldwin), his future self come back to haunt him, who comments on everything Jack and the women in his life are doing, providing a merciless, often funny voiceover that, in a nicely surreal touch, they can all hear and sometimes respond to.

A couple of themes emerge and are capped off by those pragmatic, jokey Allen-style one-liners that function like the morals in Aesop’s fables. One is that fame is arbitrary and often ridiculous—but better to have than to do without. The other is that it’s almost always better to seize the moment than to pass up a potentially life-changing experience, though Jack’s dangerous flirtation with Monica is held up as an exception to that rule.

But To Rome with Love doesn’t feel like it was made to prove a point. It has the playful lightness of a collection of ideas pieced together almost at random, then transformed by master craftsmen into a seemingly seamless whole. Vintage Allen (so much so that it and a handful of his other European movies were aptly spoofed in a Funnyordie video), it flows as strongly and steadily as water through the Aquaduct.

I suspect Jerry is speaking for Woody when he kvetches: “I haven’t made my mark. I haven’t really achieved what I wanted to do.” And I fear that what our Woody really wants to do is make serious, self-consciously arty movies like the Fellini films he grew up on. It may be a tragedy for Woody that funny, elegantly lightweight yet deeply personal movies like this one come so much more frequently, and apparently easily, to him than his “serious” efforts do, but it’s a blessing for the rest of us.

Written for TimeOff

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