Friday, July 13, 2012

Built in a Day: TO ROME WITH LOVE

To Rome with Love, Woody Allen’s forty-third film, is far too slight to hate outright. It’s a light, whimsical concoction made up of various plotlines following various sets of characters through Rome with no real sense of connection or cohesion. The film’s structure is of mild interest, the postcard-ready cinematography from Darius Khondji is gorgeous, the actors are fine and Allen’s writing is occasionally funny, but the whole enterprise feels so undercooked. Unlike the best of his European films – Vicky Cristina Barcelona, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and, my favorite of the bunch, Midnight in Paris – there’s no clear reason why the characters, stories or themes within should find themselves set in this particular city. Instead, we’re cycling through a fairly typical series of Allen plots with the lowest amount of charm and dramatic interest necessary to provoke a modicum of my affection in response.

The various plotlines that make up the film are arranged in a dawn-to-dusk structure that opens on the beautiful sunny streets of Rome and ends underneath a sky of twinkling stars, which makes the various timelines of the stories themselves – one takes place over the course of an afternoon, others during few weeks, one over several months – a mildly diverting jumble to keep straight. These plots, the simplest, most gently surrealistic and overtly comic conceits to come from Allen in quite some time, could hardly support a full feature on their own, so it’s good to see that the prolific writer-director has shuffled a handful of half-baked concepts into one film so that we could get them all over with in one underwhelming lump so he and we can move on to better things.

One story in the film follows a pair of native Italians, country newlyweds who arrive in the big city. The wife (Alessandra Mastronardi) gets lost and the husband (Alessandro Tiberi) finds himself mistaken by a prostitute (Penélope Cruz) for her newest client and they’re in the process of arguing when the husband’s family shows up and create a drawn-out case of mistaken identity. The wife ends up stumbling into her own convoluted storyline with mistaken identity and mixed-up romantic signals and so the couple finds their fresh marriage tested in somnambulant screwball scenarios. I couldn’t find this story convincing or effective, although there’s a nice payoff when the husband ends up at a business meeting accompanied by the prostitute and all the business men start sweating bullets upon recognizing the new guy’s companion.

And that’s not even the broadest story in the film. That would be the scenario that finds Roberto Benigni as an average Italian family man who suddenly, inexplicably, becomes famous. He’s hounded everywhere he goes by photographers and reporters, gets invited to fabulous parties and on talk shows, and has beautiful women throwing themselves at them. It’s Allen’s attempt at lampooning those famous for being famous, but the mystery of it all here generates a lack of specificity that stretches too thin for effective satire. A much better comment on celebrity (in a roundabout way) is a storyline starring Allen himself as a retired classical music executive who travels to Rome with his wife (Judy Davis) to meet their daughter (Alison Pill) and her fiancé (Flavio Parenti), as well as their future in-laws. Allen’s delighted to find that the fiancé’s mortician father (Fabio Armiliato) has a great voice for opera, but will only sing in the shower.

All this is mere garnish, however, for the main course of the piece, a somewhat structurally complicated story about a middle-aged architect (Alec Baldwin) who wanders away from his wife’s sightseeing in order to visit the neighborhood in Rome where he spent some post-collegiate years. Once wandering down this memory lane, he meets a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) who recognizes him and invites him to visit his apartment he shares with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and where they are anticipating the arrival of one of her friends from college (Ellen Page). Baldwin lingers around the edges of the scenes that follow, interacting with the characters in ways that make him seem removed from the actual physical, temporal reality of the goings-on. It soon becomes clear (although the film never spells it out) that the young man he met is in fact his younger self. He is literally wandering around, reliving his past. This is the only thread in the film that would almost be enough, with some expansion, to fill up a satisfying feature on its own.

What Woody Allen has here is a collection of scenes and sketches with little reason to be thrown together in this way in this city. But what he does have is a nice sense of commitment to the various conceits of varying realism and broadness, complete and unwavering. And once again Allen proves that he knows good ways to make use of actors, feeding off of their screen personas in ways that make them at once utterly believable in character and completely of a piece within the Allen oeuvre. Of the cast, I’d most like to see Pill, Gerwig, Page, and Eisenberg in a future Allen film. They’re pretty terrific here, finding good ways to perform Allen’s dialogue and scenarios while breathing life into what is ultimately fairly uninvolving lightweight material. 

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