Thursday, July 12, 2012

To Rome with Love: Woody Lite

To Rome with Love (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, and much too harshly, for some sexual candor and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang

Having conquered France — and re-ignited his career, not to mention securing yet another Academy Award, for scripting last year’s Midnight in Paris — Woody Allen continues his European tour with an intermittently charming visit to Italy.

To the mounting horror of Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi, far left), his
stuffy older relatives mistakenly assume that professional call girl
Anna (Penélope Cruz) is his new wife .. and then he's forced to
continue the charade — with Anna's amused assistance — lest the
cat be let out of the bag.
The good news is that, while nowhere near as fresh and clever as Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love nonetheless continues Allen’s pleasantly droll examinations of continental love, and the pursuit of same. His goal isn’t nearly as lofty this time; one gets the sense that these four vignettes — connected solely by location — are modest little pieces that Allen knew couldn’t be expanded into full-length films.

As a result, we have a quartet of short stories, much like his piece (“Oedipus Wrecks”) in the 1989 anthology film, New York Stories. The results here are a bit uneven, ranging from hilarious and sharply observed, to overly talky and mannered in the way that sounds so uniquely “Woody Allen” ... the latter an affectation that may have been extended beyond its sell-by date.

At 112 minutes, To Rome with Love also feels overlong, with two of the segments suffering from visible bloat: not terribly so, but enough to prompt viewer restlessness.

Allen signals his disparate intentions by having the film introduced by a somewhat careless traffic policeman (Pierluigi Marchionne), who proudly extols the virtues of his city, and its many stories. We then meet four different sets of characters, each faced with a crisis of circumstance, existential angst or celestial manipulation.

Newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) have arrived in Rome to begin life together, and so that he can impress his boorish, straight-laced relatives and — through their contacts — secure an upscale job in the big city. But with only hours to spare, Milly sets off to get her hair done, and becomes lost; meanwhile, Antonio is confronted by a prostitute (Penélope Cruz) who shows up at his hotel room by mistake, and then is forced to play his wife when the condescending relations arrive.

To make matters worse, the impressionable Milly wanders onto a film set and finds herself the target of a legendary movie star (Antonio Albanese), who hopes to enjoy her as afternoon delight. And she’s not wholly adverse to the notion; is it so awful, to want to bed a famous film actor?

This is classic screwball comedy material, played to perfection by all three leads. Cruz is enthusiastically voluptuous as a well-endowed tart with a penchant for wicked double entendres, and Mastronardi’s “innocence” is just as adorable as her dithering about whether to fall from grace. Tiberi, in turn, is a classic nebbish needing a healthy transfusion of self-respect ... and who better than Cruz, to administer the dose?

Elsewhere, eminent American architect John (Alec Baldwin), wandering the Roman streets where he once lived as a twentysomething, encounters expat architecture student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who is studying Rome’s glorious buildings and ruins in the company of longtime girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). Alas, Jack and Sally’s comfortable bond is threatened by the arrival of her dazzling, flirtatious best friend, Monica (Ellen Page), a would-be actress marking time between relationships.

John, remembering romantic blunders from his own past, sees nothing but trouble in this now-awkward arrangement; he tries to prevent Jack from falling under Monica’s enticing spell, but — alas! — we all have to make our own mistakes.

Unfortunately, Allen’s deliberately contrived storytelling style, in this segment, never quite gels. Although John is introduced as a real, flesh-and-blood person, he soon becomes more of a cautionary presence, like a conscience sitting on Jack’s shoulder, unseen by everybody else ... except when he breaks that fourth wall to banter with Monica, who resents the way this dude keeps harshing her vibe.

We become distracted by our desire to know the rules by which Allen is playing, which seem to vary, according to the demands of a given scene. Does Sally ever actually see John? Hard to be sure. Does John, therefore, not really exist? Equally difficult to determine.

Baldwin’s tart observations — and futile efforts at counseling — are sharply written and impeccably delivered, but he’s acting up a storm in a vacuum. Page is badly miscast, never credibly inhabiting her role as a boyfriend-stealing narcissist. Even worse, Gerwig’s Sally emerges as the dumbest woman on the planet, given the way she constantly throws Jack into Monica’s arms, with no apparent awareness of the temptations that surely will result.

Additionally, as a couple, Eisenberg and Gerwig evoke echoes of the characters Allen and Diane Keaton played in Annie Hall, and the comparison does this film’s young actors no favors.

Still elsewhere, retired avant-garde opera director Jerry (Allen, in an acting role) and his wife (Judy Davis) have just arrived in Rome, to meet the charming young Italian (Flavio Parenti, as Michelangelo) who has swept their daughter (Alison Pill, as Hayley) off her feet. Retirement doesn’t suit Jerry, and his eyebrows shoot up after hearing the gorgeous singing voice of Michelangelo’s father, Giancarlo (renowned tenor Fabio Armiliato), an undertaker by trade.

There’s only one problem: Much like the amphibian who’d perform solely for his owner — and nobody else — in the classic Warner Bros. cartoon One Froggy Evening, Giancarlo’s dulcet tones emerge only when in the shower. At all other times, he simply cannot recapture that vocal magic.

Allen’s Jerry snaps off a wonderful series of snarky one-liners, but they can’t mask the fact that this single-note concept is belabored at far too great a length, with a wholly anticipated payoff that delivers no surprises and therefore feels underwhelming. More crucially, this saga’s focus on water-soaked arias pulls us away from Hayley and Michelangelo, whose pending marriage seems in genuine trouble, due to Jerry’s meddling ... and this detail is left unresolved.

The most satisfying and sharply observed segment, by far, stars Roberto Benigni as Leopoldo Pisanello, a dull-as-dishwater office drone who never can get his co-workers or family members to pay attention to his views on politics, religion and anything else that crosses his mind. Then, on an otherwise ordinary morning, Leopoldo finds himself the center of a paparazzi squadron, with reporters, photographers and TV news anchors hanging on his every word.

And I mean his every word, no matter how trivial: What did you eat for breakfast? Do you wear boxers, or briefs? Rome’s most gorgeous young women pass telephone numbers, hoping to bed him; Leopoldo and his wife find themselves invited to every dignitary-laden, high-society function that comes along.

This is, of course, a shrewd indictment of the way modern media has made vacuous individuals “famous for being famous,” thus shoving aside important world news in favor of puff pieces reflecting on the state of Paris Hilton’s wardrobe, or whether Lindsey Lohan will complete her court-ordered rehabilitation. We’re all complicit in this travesty; if we didn’t lap up this thin gruel of faux celebrity, media outlets would stop serving it.

Benigni’s frightened, puzzled and suspicions reactions are priceless, as he confronts and attempts to deal with these stalkers. Better still, of course, is the moment he begins to believe in his own puffed-up importance; the comic timing present in this transformation is equally funny.

Taken collectively, most of these four stories contain plot contrivances that once again play to Allen’s male-oriented fantasies of gorgeous young women throwing themselves at ordinary dweebs who often are decades older. That note, as well, has been overplucked in his many films ... although it’ll probably play just fine with the more tolerant continental sensibilities regarding extra-marital dalliances.

More intriguing, perhaps, is Allen’s clever juxtaposition of time. These stories are cross-cut in equal doses, but they unfold at different rates. Milly and Antonio experience their respective epiphanies in a single afternoon, while the Jack/Sally/Monica triptych occupies weeks, if not months; the other two segments play out over days, if not weeks. That’s a bit disorienting, although not unpleasantly so.

Ultimately, To Rome with Love emerges as an engaging appetizer that leaves us wanting a more substantial main course. Granted, Allen wasn’t likely to achieve another “Midnight in Paris” right away, but you never really know; he has re-invented his career many times over, at this point.

Next time, then ... who knows?

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