What an amazing run Woody Allen has enjoyed over the last decade or so. Actually, during the last 20 years, Allen has reeled off Husbands and Wives, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, Sweet and Lowdown, Melinda and Melinda, Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris.
Of course, I should note that this list is merely a collection of the titles that either particularly intrigued me or earned critical acclaim (in most cases, both). I chose to ignore Don’t Drink the Water, Everyone Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity, Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Anything Else, Scoop, Whatever Works and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. (I wasn’t alone; many of those films were also ignored or forgotten by audiences in general.)
For his last film, Midnight in Paris, Allen earned an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (which goes along with his two other screenplay Oscars — for Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters — and a Best Director Oscar for Annie Hall), which led critics to marvel at his renaissance. During this period, Allen’s work notably wandered far from his native New York, but his signature brand of Big Apple neuroses contrasts nicely with the various European destinations of his comedic travelogue.
The next stop, To Rome With Love, finds Allen cruising through the Eternal City in a madcap fantasy of misdirection, misinterpretation and almost-missed opportunities for a collection of characters whose lives and misadventures don’t intersect.
A lost American tourist (Alison Pill) bumps into a young handsome Italian (Flavio Parenti) and, seemingly before their first kiss, they are destined for the altar. But not before a kooky musical collaboration between their fathers (Allen and famed Italian tenor, Fabio Armiliato, making his film debut) threatens to derail the whole affair.
A middle-class Everyman (Roberto Benigni) wakes up one morning and discovers that he, inexplicably, has become a celebrity and must deal with the accompanying perks of fame, as well as the complete loss of privacy.
A successful American architect (Alec Baldwin) encounters a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) who he imagines is following in his disastrous romantic footsteps, slowly falling for an actress (Ellen Page) who happens to be the best friend of his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig).
And, last but not least, a newly married couple (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) from outside of Rome ventures in to impress the husband’s family and establish themselves in the family business. But they get separated and struggle with temptations at every turn.
At times, To Rome feels like an impossible odyssey where it’s difficult to determine whether it is rooted in reality or fantasy. Unlike Midnight in Paris, To Rome uses no devices to signal the shift from the real to that other place — and it should be noted that the “other” could be an avant garde alternative, a Bravo-based celebrity factory, the nostalgic mind of an aging boomer or an urban moral rabbit hole.
The only obvious connection between the four comedic dreamscapes is the city and its sense of eternal absurdity. Allen wants us to see that in life, anything can happen, especially among the ruins of Rome. The bizarre and the loopy lie just beneath the surface or around the next corner, just past that plaza up ahead, waiting to be revealed.
No discussion of a Woody Allen film is ever complete without an analysis of the efforts of his stand-in for that particular project. To Rome, thanks to its multiple storylines, boasts a virtual cavalcade of Allen impersonations, often more than one in a story segment. Intriguingly, the young women, Page and Pill, provide the most sure-footed takes on Allen’s recognizable nebbishness, casting subtle hints of the breathless way Allen’s mind seems to race to beat the worry escaping from his mouth.
In fact, they are even better than the master himself, although he shouldn’t feel the need to give up appearing onscreen. These instances of the eternal and the absurd are borne from him; To Rome With Love is a reminder of the unbearable lightness of his being. Grade: A-