A scene from Woody Allen's To Rome With Love
Woody Allen keeps churning out a film every year, though it’s been a long time since he made two outstanding films consecutively. After the triumph of last year’s Midnight in Paris, a commercial and critical success, few of us expected To Rome With Love to be its equal. So it proves: his latest effort certainly has its moments – and a few good jokes - but it’s uneven.
To Rome With Love, continuing his recent ‘European tour’ that has seen him shooting in London, Barcelona and Paris, is what used to be called an ‘omnibus film’ - an anthology of short stories, sometimes with overlapping characters, loosely linked to a common theme. Here the theme is the Eternal City.
Omnibus films were popular in Italy in the 50s and 60s, and many of them contained elements of broad comedy. Allen follows in those footsteps, summoning an all-star cast, as only he can, to act out little stories, some poignant, some merely slight.
Of the four vignettes, the best features Allen himself, as a retired New York opera director, visiting Rome with his sharp-tongued wife (Judy Davis) to meet their daughter’s fiancé. He happens to hear the young man’s father singing in the shower and concludes he has an extraordinary voice; but the Italian tenor cannot sing outside the bathroom. It’s a heavy-handed story, but not without its appeal.
Alec Baldwin plays another American visitor, returning to the streets of Rome where he spent his student years; he meets a younger version of himself (Jesse Eisenberg, who played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network) torn between two women – one sternly serious, the other a pretentious flirt. Baldwin stands to one side, offering the young man advice – a device Allen used four decades ago in Play It Again Sam.
The other two stories concern Italians. Roberto Benigni (one of my least favourite actors ever since his syrupy, sentimental Holocaust film Life is Beautiful) plays an obscure office worker who one day, for no rhyme or reason, becomes a national celebrity. And Penélope Cruz plays a voluptuous prostitute who passes herself off as the new wife of a shy young Italian man; his real spouse has drifted off to a film set, only to have a fling with a star actor.
As in his previous Europe-set films, Allen takes a tourist’s picture postcard view of Rome. No great landmark is left unfilmed, no cliché unexplored – even down to Dean Martin singing Volare on the soundtrack.
For all this, To Rome With Love is affable entertainment. It’s as chaotic as the traffic in the Eternal City, and as corny as the gags Allen used to write for other comedians back in the 1950s; it’s hard to mount a rational defence for much of it. Still, it slips down easily – and inevitably leaves the audience wondering what Woody might come up with next.
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