When I left the theater after Woody Allen’s magical Midnight in Paris last year, my cheeks hurt from grinning from start to finish. Woody’s love letter to Paris, filled with lavish photography of the city’s most famous sights had me scrambling to book tickets to the City of Light. Could he top it with To Rome With Love, or even come close?
To Rome With Love opens with Allen’s characteristically simple credits rolling to the nostalgic strains of Volare. I didn’t mind the cheesy Italian tourist music. It proclaims from the start what kind of movie To Rome With Love is a fun frolic through Rome, through its ruins, through its romantic traditions as passed down by decades of Roman Holiday-types of films.
Four separate vignettes reveal the plot of To Rome With Love. The unconnected narratives interweave in no particular order, each illuminating a different Italian motif.
Woody Allen’s films attract top actors, and his direction and screenplays tend to bring out their best performances. In To Rome With Love, this is best seen in the sketch involving the American couple Sally and Jack (Greta Gerwig and Jesse Eisenberg) and Sally’s best friend Monica (Ellen Page), visiting them in Rome. Sally constantly frets that Jack will fall in love with Monica, an actress who possesses an uncanny sex appeal. I initially had doubts as to whether Ellen Page could pull this off, but the Oscar-nominated actress (for 2007’s Juno) and actor (Eisenberg, for 2010’s The Social Network) make us believe it when Jack starts to cave in to her magnetic sexiness. The presence of Alec Baldwin’s character John provides an interesting temporal twist to this storyline. He plays an architect that Jack, an architecture student, has idolized. The two run into each other in Sally and Jack’s Trastevere neighborhood and from then on John serves as a kind of Greek chorus to Jack (and sometimes to the women), warning him of Monica’s less-than-authentic cultural qualifications, warning him about blowing the good thing he’s got going with Sally.
The conflicting placements in time between Jack and John’s mini-storylines will bewilder some viewers, but in this sketch Woody leaves us the key-much like he did by opening the film with Volare. At one point, Ellen Page’s Monica gushes over the significance of Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, the quintessential Absurdist work that compares the plight of the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus with the absurdity of humanity. Allen has given us his own Absurdist take with To Rome With Love, not spoon-feeding us a straightforward intrigue, but asking us to suspend logic for several hours and enjoy the human spectacle as portrayed against sumptuous Roman scenery.
In another yarn, Oscar-winning Roberto Benigni (for 1997’s Life is Beautiful) plays Leopoldo Pisanello, an ordinary man suddenly beset with inexplicable fame. There is nothing subtle about Allen’s intention to poke fun at the fickleness and aggressiveness of the paparazzi and at the public that accepts whatever the press feeds it. Benigni’s troubles entertain us as we follow his character cycling through the phases of his notoriety.
Spain’s Penelope Cruz (another Oscar winner, for Allen’s 2008 Vicky Christina Barcelona) shows off her linguistic chops with a role as a prostitute in a third sketch completely in Italian. This one, an outright sex romp, follows the mayhem that ensues when a newlywed Italian couple arrives in Rome. The husband is there to take a position with the family firm. The wife disappears while out to get her hair done and Cruz’s character assumes the role of his wife when the stodgy aunts and uncles misinterpret why she’s caught in bed with the husband in the couple’s hotel room. Sounds implausible? Yes, and silly, but mostly it’s Absurd, and throughout the rollicking action, we explore ideals of Italian love and sex, of the absurdity of star-struck fans hopping into bed with film stars, and we get to peek at the lovely Roman scenery behind it all.
The fourth tale is that of Giancarlo (played by tenor Fabio Armiliato), a mortician who sings like an opera star-but only when he’s in the shower. Woody Allen plays a music producer in retirement that overhears Giancarlo and insists on bringing his talent before the masses. Their respective children Michelangelo and Hayley (Flavio Parenti and Alison Pill) are engaged and Jerry and Phyllis (Woody and Judy Davis, who is excellent) are in Italy to meet Michelangelo’s parents. There are funny moments throughout To Rome With Love, but this was the sketch that had me laughing out loud. The full theater chuckled almost every time Woody opened his mouth (especially when repeatedly mispronouncing “Michelangelo”) and roared at the opera scenes. Stupidly funny, yes, these scenes, but again-pure Absurdity is the point. How refreshing to belly laugh at a musical form like opera, one that takes itself so seriously.
To Rome With Love carries an “R” rating for the sexual references, and there is a lot of hopping in and out of bed, but really there’s not too much to offend the sensitive viewer. I counted only one F-word, and it was appropriately placed. As with Midnight in Paris, there was a bit of foreign language spoken, with subtitles. Two of the sub-stories were completely in Italian. The Italian language, however, adds to the charm as much as do the vistas of the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, and the picturesque alleys of Trastevere.
I could have done without the bookending of the film with two different characters talking to the camera, explaining that there are all these stories taking place in Rome. The one at the beginning was mildly amusing, a flamboyant policeman directing traffic on the Piazza Venezia. I would have kept the scenery, especially of the spectacular monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II, but cut the policeman’s dialogue along with that of the man on the balcony overlooking the Spanish Steps at the end of the film.
To Rome With Love wasn’t Midnight in Paris, but I’m not sure anything will ever match that particular treasure. As with Midnight in Paris, though, I did grin throughout, and I do find myself inclined to get on a plane for Rome. To Rome With Love has received criticism for not acknowledging the current economic woes in Europe and in Italy, but it shouldn’t have-it wasn’t that kind of movie. That movie’s soundtrack wouldn’t have opened with Volare.