To Rome with Love (2012, Woody Allen)
Don’t come here looking for the whimsy and romance of Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s most assured film in nearly two decades (coming from someone who’s been a fan of most of his recent movies); Sony Pictures has expertly marketed this thing, city name in the title and all, as a sequel of sorts, a date movie for the self-described sophisticates Allen has spent a large proportion of his career gently mocking. The dictum here, in reality, is that your enjoyment of To Rome with Love will depend broadly on how you responded to the extremely unexpectedly silly parts of Midnight. The sillier you like your comedies, the better; it’s a frothy dream of sorts, which has its merit, not least of it being: to what (seriously, what on earth) do we owe the pleasure of Woody Allen’s sudden good mood?
The optimism, almost feverish, that permeated Midnight in Paris like nothing since Hannah and Her Sisters is still aglow here. There are no mouthpiece characters with nihilistic speeches, no grandiose rants about God and death. It’s more like a gentle, placid version of what the screeching festival attendees in Stardust Memories famously termed the director’s “older, funnier movies.” In other words, it’s very light and full of jokes, but somewhat more remarkably, it includes sight gags (!!) and in a wonderful, welcome turn, Allen himself acts in it. It’s his first onscreen performance since the underrated goofoff Scoop, and it fulfills some of that film’s promise in the sense that we’re now able to see that Allen has lost none of his skill and timing as an actor with age. He’s such a delight in this movie that at the screening we saw, people started laughing as soon as he appeared — before he said a word.
Allen’s in the prestigious position of not having to work very hard to get people — the “right” people, anyway — to see his movies, but he nevertheless seems to have hit upon a sudden sense of his own commercial strength. He’s more than capable of creating fluff, and it’s ingratiating and beautifully performed fluff at that. You can grumble a few protests about how at his best, he’s so much more, but this sweetness and light is working out well for him financially, and it’s certainly something new for him — and new things in a 46-year directorial career are, to say the least, not easy to come by.
Rome is essentially an anthology film of four stories connected somewhat tenuously by the title city. In order of artistic ambition, from most to least, they are: an odyssey of a traveling couple who get lost and separated and wander into love affairs; the wistful saga of a famed architect who meets up with what appears to be his former self about to get in a heap of lady trouble; a very easygoing extended skit revolving around a man who discovers his daughter’s future father-in-law is a magnificent opera singer, but only in the shower; and the joke-filled tale of an ordinary man who wakes up to discover he’s a celebrity, for no reason. These trifles resemble nothing so much as the essays Allen used to write in venues like the New Yorker, high concept two-pagers later anthologized with titles like Without Feathers. They introduce an idea, run with it, and take it to its logical conclusion, in this case usually with an uncommonly cheerful ending tacked on. The only note of melancholy is in the longing and nostalgia inherent to the architect’s story, which also features the glut of the film’s most cinematically persuasive sequences — in particular a stormy night spent breaking into the landmark Roman baths that favorably suggests the kiss Allen shared with Juliette Lewis in Husbands and Wives, the power outage in September… yeah, it’s that kind of Woody Allen movie, with the usual location porn common to his recent European films.
Alas, in order of accomplishment and staying power, the quadrants are ranked thusly: ordinary man as celebrity (Roberto Benigni); opera singer (Woody Allen, Judy Davis, Alison Pill, et al.); architect and bisexual dream girl (Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page); and lost couple versus actors and prostitutes (Penelope Cruz et al). Not coincidentally, they are the most fun and the funniest in the same order. Note that this means that the least narratively ambitious sequence is in fact the best; Benigni’s story is flighty and hilarious, even if its conclusions are obvious — the delivery, in script and performances, is balletic perfection. Likewise, the opera sequences in the second segment are a joy because they exhibit Allen having actual fun for a change, doing something completely stupid and silly just because, and against the framework of chemistry between Allen and Judy Davis that brings back wonderful memories of their earlier films together. Not that there isn’t plenty to enjoy in the other half — Cruz is an unmitigated delight, for one thing, and it’s charming how poor a job Eisenberg does at concealing his bouncing-off-the-walls glee at being in this movie — but there’s such a thrill in seeing Allen, whose films have grown ever more serious-minded over the decades, cut completely loose of his hangups as both an actor and a director.
It might have taken some time, and maybe it was a conscious decision, but at some point Allen gained the ability to craft what the old promoters would call a “real crowd-pleaser”; when Amber and I saw the movie at an arthouse showing, the theater was packed, the guffaws overwhelmed the dialogue at times, and there was applause at the end, the first time I’ve ever witnessed such a thing at a movie. I didn’t join in, but I could have. Is this movie good enough to deserve such a joyous reaction? I don’t think so, but I think it’s worth celebrating that it hits so many of the right buttons and is such a lovely piece of pure, unadulterated entertainment that goes down easy and gently. It’s like Allen’s very own To Catch a Thief.