First it was the Gauls and the Visigoths, now Rome has been laid waste by a new menace of unstoppable proportions – Woody Allen. Over the past few years this deadly invader has marched on London (Match Point), Barcelona (Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona), and finally, Paris (Midnight in Paris). Is no city – at least, no European city – safe from his depredations?
Under his sustained assault these cities have been reduced to ugly mounds of clichés. No famous or picturesque sight has escaped his attention. Most insidious of all is the strange form of mind control he seems to exercise on the masses. For while there are some who decry his actions, many seemingly intelligent human beings will tell you they just loved Midnight in Paris.
In his senior years Allen has fallen back on two reliable observations about the behaviour of film audiences. Firstly, they are drawn to exotic locations in the most abjectly touristic fashion. This means one may enjoy the vicarious sensation of being in Paris or Rome via the movies. Hollywood has always known this, as evidenced by flicks such as Roman Holiday, Three Coins in a Fountain, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and the unforgettable, Gidget Goes to Rome.
To satisfy this craving all a director has to do is cram a film with shots of the most prominent tourist attractions, along with a sampling of quaint old streets and a chorus of Volare.
The second standard is that audiences cannot resist films laden with multiple celebrities. This has aways been true, but it has recently become a mania. There are so many celebrities out there nowadays, one can hardly go to the corner store without bumping into a few.
Among wannabees, hasbeens and should-know-betters, Allen’s films have become a badge of distinction. Everyone who has had their fifteen minutes of fame needs to do a Woody Allen movie, as a kind of sealer. These films have become parties, which nobody takes very seriously. The same stock characters keep turning up, the same neurotic anxieties, the same hackneyed romantic dilemmas. We watch these cardboard scenarios in a trance because the roles are so poorly developed we see only the actors.
Could anybody really see Alec Baldwin as an American architect in To Rome with Love? He is Alec Baldwin, hamming it up as if it were a pantomime. Is Penelope Cruz convincing as Roman hooker? No, but she is extremely convincing as Penelope Cruz. The same goes for Roberto Benigni and Allen himself.
In the manner of those portmanteau films Cinecittà used to turn out, To Rome with Love has four separate, unrelated storylines. Alec Baldwin plays John, an American architect revisiting the streets where he once lived as a student. There he meets a youthful alter-ego in architecture student, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), and takes on the role of chorus as Jack is tempted to betray his salt-of-the-earth partner (Greta Gerwig), with her narcissistic friend, Monica (Ellen Page). It’s Play it Again Sam, played again.
When Jerry and Phyllis (Allen and Judy Davis) come to Rome to meet the handsome young Italian their daughter is going to marry, they find that his father, a mortician by trade, has the voice of an opera singer. Unfortunately he can only produce the goods while in the shower. The predictable jokes ensue.
Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) are newlyweds, fresh from the provinces. He has an important meeting with relatives about a job, but through a series of mishaps has to pretend a glamorous escort is his wife while Milly is elsewhere, being courted by a lecherous actor.
The final strand has Roberto Benigni as an ordinary man suddenly and inextricably plunged into the world of stardom, his every move shadowed by the paparazzi. This is probably the best of the four stories because its surreal scenario thows up so many possibilties for quick gags. It feels, however, like the script that Fellini forgot.
The references to directors such as Fellini, De Sica and others are perfectly self-conscious. Lurking somewhere in the background is Boccaccio’s Decameron, which was filmed by Pasolini in 1971. In fact the working title for this movie was Bop Decameron.
There is one truly poignant moment, when Phyllis questions Jerry’s motives in trying to bring the singing mortician to the stage. “You’re just doing this because you’re afraid of retirement,” she says. That should be the motto for this entire film, if not the past ten Woody Allen films. The best thing I can say about To Rome with Love is that it is better than Midnight in Paris. The humour is lighter, the script less pretentious, and there are moments when one almost forgets the staginess of the stories. On the other hand, if you’re one of the many who loved Midnight in Paris, then what’s not to like?
To Rome with Love, USA/Italy/Spain, rated M, 112 mins.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, October 20,2012