Earlier this year Robert Weide’s enjoyable documentary on Woody Allen showed a filmmaker who stores ideas on post-it notes he later develops; To Rome with Love, Allen’s latest piece, looks to be a combination of four separate post-it notes of varying strength intercut against a majestic backdrop of Rome.
Starting with a beautiful tracking shot of the Italian capital, the exterior shots of Rome are the only constant to four vignettes, that are more like extended comedy sketches. The cast is naturally strong and includes Allen himself, first appearing on screen , expressing himself like a hypochondriac John McEnroe to his wife, played by Judy Davis.
It is one of the better storylines, with Allen discovering a mortician who sings like a tenor in the shower, that he wants to pursue, driven on to come out of the retirement he associates with death. Not all the dialogue is great, with arguably the character of his future son-in-law being particularly one-dimensional, but there is some good slapstick and visual gags that have echoes of the farce and surrealism that were more frequent in Allen’s seventies comedies.
Along the same lines, like Allen’s Bananas, the vignette where Roberto Benigini suddenly finds fame also draws on the imagination, this time rather than Fielding Melish interviewed in bed, Benigini’s Leopoldo is followed around reporters everywhere. A slightly soft target perhaps, but the parody of the way media creates and then covers the culture of celebrity works well enough but the disappointment is that Benigini’s undoubted talent for comedy, which he demonstrated brilliantly in Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law, isn’t used to the maximum; instead the theme is more reliant on a lazy portrayal of women, particularly in the workplace, that creates an idyll of success from the point of an ordinary middle-aged office worker. Leopoldo is eventually rescued from the life he unknowingly walked into by Freddo of Romanzo Crimanale, as Allen seeks to show the fickle nature of fame for being famous, as Benigini is finally given the chance to be more expressive as he starts to miss what he had.
It’s unlikely Jessie Eisenberg, who almost boasted in an interview last year that he doesn’t own a TV, has ever seen Romanzo Crimanale, a television programme that is superior to most cinematic output; in To Rome with Love Eisenberg plays a character not unfamiliar to Allen films, and previously covered in much more depth by Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters, Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Match Point and Allen himself in a few films, notably Manhattan. So, this short story was going to give us nothing new, and also included a few other items of the Allen checklist, including the neurotic actress, this time played by Ellen Page, the set-up for a romantic look in the rain and the imaginary ghost on the shoulder of the protagonist, which was best used in Play It Again Sam. There is little surprise in the story and though it contains a few laughs, it serves best as a tour guide for Rome when the action moves out of the studio and into the city.
Similarly the fourth plot, of a young couple venturing to Rome with high hopes, is fairly flimsy, though showcases the Italian capital. Starting with the idea of getting lost in a big city that most can relate to there is the nice running gag of getting directions from locals that can’t be followed. The next idea in the story, of a stuck-up family walking in to a bedroom with a high class call-girl could have been the plot-line of an episode of a bad 1980’s British sitcom. Allen develops the situation so he engineers the call-girl, played by Penelope Cruz, in different social situations, not unlike what he did in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. (At one point Cruz’s character, Anna, says her dad sold drugs and her mum is a shoplifter, but we never get the chance to hear if she was once England Captain). It is the weakest of the four storylines, although well acted, and like the whole film, well shot.
Ultimately, To Rome with Love is easy to watch, both on the eye and on the ear, with beautiful cinematography, some funny gags and a bit of opera thrown in. If a fan wanted to list Allen’s best films in order, this wouldn’t make the first couple of pages, but like Whatever Works, it is intent on having a happy ending, and being a bit of harmless fun.
With echoes of Glory from American Cinema to Bruce Springsteen, and full of the flavour of Escape that European Travel brings, with tales from Rome to Madrid, The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley‘ is available from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.