Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
Each year brings a new Woody Allen film, and with it the annual checkup of whether or not the filmmaker still “has it.” Odds were more dicey in the wake of his late-90s drop-off, but since crossing the Atlantic for 2005’s Match Point, he’s produced a string of vibrant works that rival his ‘70s peak.
His European muse strikes again with To Rome With Love, a film so enjoyable that it occasionally surpasses the highs of last year’s Midnight in Paris. This latest love letter abroad follows a collection of Italians and tourists on their misadventures through the ancient city. Opening on stunning visuals reminiscent of his French lenswork, To Rome With Love then stumbles a bit, unsure how to get its numerous threads rolling. Framed with clunky man-on-the-street narration, there’s a good deal of stiff set-up, but once the vignettes start to go somewhere and hit their stride, the film rarely lets up.
Leading the way are a pair of subtitle-free arcs, the best of which features architecture student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who runs into famous architect John (Alec Baldwin) as the latter searches for the neighborhood where he lived 30 years prior. A quasi older version of Jack, John becomes the young man’s conscience, comedically advising Jack as the troubled seductress Monica (Ellen Page) comes between him and his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig).
Elevated by Baldwin’s biting commentary, this indie triumvirate is a pleasure to behold. Allen rarely features so many stalwarts of cinema’s youth movement, and to have three of its finest together shows that he (or at least his casting director) is paying attention. Page’s Monica continues the pseudo-intellectual type played by Michael Sheen in Midnight in Paris, but with a femme fatale twist. As John points out, she knows one line from every poet, enough to sound informed. Despite John’s hilarious insights (including the occasional “Here comes the bull****”), Jack’s guard slowly breaks down, much to our delight.
With a few exceptions (Sean Penn in Sweet and Lowdown; Larry David in Whatever Works), it’s best when Woody himself handles the neurotic workload. Last seen wisecracking his way through Scoop, he’s superb as Jerry, a recently retired opera director in town with his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) to visit their daughter Hayley (Allison Pill) and her fiance, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti).
After meeting their future in-laws, Ellen (Lynn Swanson) and Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), Jerry overhears Giancarlo singing in the shower and sees a shot at stardom that’s long proved elusive. The subsequent pursuit blooms to a rare moment of high comic filmmaking, so brilliant yet simple in its execution that it’s a wonder no one thought of it before. Staged with such precision, there’s the sense that Allen has been saving the concept in his notebooks for decades, waiting for the right time to use it. By taking a near-universal truth and transforming it into something magnificent, his placement couldn’t be better.
On the domestic front, the tale of honeymooning Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) and Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) is an exercise in mistaken identity fun. Separated for an afternoon, the couple have their calm lives turned upside down by exotic strangers, notably Penelope Cruz as a sexy call girl.
Also representing the home team is Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), an average Roman vaulted to celebrity status for no good reason. As Leopoldo is tailed by paparazzos and his every move scrutinized by the media, Allen seems poised to make a rich, eloquent statement about the ridiculous nature of fame. His handling turns out a bit one-note, which may be the point entirely, but is still plenty of fun. It’s also nice to see Benigni at last working with quality material again.
Jumping between these well-written stories, Allen consistently pulls the plug before staleness has a chance to set in. If only he would avoid his standard pearls of wisdom, which always seem to find their way into his film’s final acts. Delivered with eye-rolling sincerity, these summation lines draw unnecessary attention to themselves, as if to say, “If you missed the main point, here it is, wrapped up with a bow on top.”
But that’s just nitpicking. To Rome With Love does too many things right to be hampered by such minor flaws. The film is Allen at his best, full of big laughs, beautiful scenery, and smart tunes. We’ll check back next year, but for now he clearly still has “it” and should continue to as long as Europe provides him with inspiration.
To Rome With Love opens locally at the Fine Arts Theatre and The Carolina on Friday, July 6.
Rated R for some sexual references.
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[…] Allen’s excellent To Rome With Love is the undisputed champion of the week. The matter is certainly up for debate, but when the […]