“Midnight in Paris” was an unexpected, late-career high point for Woody Allen. His follow-up, “To Rome With Love,” drops him right back to the middle.
“Midnight in Paris” may have lacked the depth of Allen’s seminal works, “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” but it was an unqualified delight, a love song to one of Europe’s great cities.
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On the surface, “To Rome With Love” stays the same course. Allen visits another European capital, again with a bright disposition. Gone are the cynicism and misanthropy that marked his late 1990s output.
Where “Paris” focused on a time-travel fantasy, “Rome” is another of Allen’s ensemble pictures with a dozen celebrities crowded into multiple storylines. His career has had its up and downs, but the one constant since the 1980s is major movie stars are dying to work with the Woodman.
The current roster includes veterans Alec Baldwin, Judy Davis, Roberto Benigni and Penelope Cruz, with rising stars Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig. Many Italian actors fill out the cast for local flavor, and Allen himself appears for the first time in five films. He gets right to his patented witticisms: “I was very left when I was his age, too, but I was never a communist. I couldn’t share a bathroom.”
“To Rome With Love” opens with a police officer who interrupts his duties directing traffic in front of the Spanish Steps to address the camera. All of Rome passes through his domain, he boasts, and he introduces the main characters of the four stories that will play out for the rest of the film.
Movies with multiple storylines are uneven by nature, which Allen proves with his screenplay. One story is very good, one is pretty bad, and the other two bobble about in between.
To get the bad one out of the way, two demure newlyweds (Allesandro Tiberi and Allessandra Mastronardi) arrive from the country for a honeymoon in the big city. They also have an important meeting planned with his relatives and business contacts.
The bride leaves to get her hair done and promptly gets lost amid the twisting streets and indecipherable addresses. It’s a good joke: Even an Italian can’t follow directions in Rome.
Meanwhile, a prostitute (Cruz) bursts into the groom’s hotel room, and his relatives burst in while he’s in an embarrassing position with Cruz. What else can he do but introduce her as his new bride and leave for the meeting?
The farce is so weak even the characters complain about the lame deception. Allen’s analysis of the groom’s Madonna-whore complex couldn’t be more obvious. Things happen that show Allen has little faith in the sanctity of marriage, but we all knew that, didn’t we?
Allen appears in one of the middling stories. He and Davis (in her fifth Allen film) are a married couple arriving in Rome to meet their daughter’s (Allison Pill) fiancé, a socialist lawyer. This starts out as a typical tale of in-laws clashing across different cultures, but it takes a strange twist when Allen, a retired opera director, discovers that the lawyer’s father is a magnificent tenor when he sings in the shower. But he can sing only in the shower.
Allen follows this idea through to its logical, if absurd, conclusion. Did he know the same plot was used in an episode of “The Flintstones” (and recycled in “The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show”)? Somehow I doubt it, but the strangest thing about “To Rome With Love” is the possibility that Woody Allen ripped off Hanna-Barbera.
Baldwin and Eisenberg star in the most vexing segment. Baldwin is an architect who lived in Rome in his youth. Wandering his old neighborhood, Baldwin runs into Eisenberg, a young architect now living in Rome. Eisenberg brings him home and introduces him to his girlfriend (Gerwig), who announces that her best friend (Page) will be staying with them while she recovers from a nasty breakup.
Baldwin immediately warns them this will be a recipe for relationship disaster. He and Eisenberg step outside the narrative, as Allen and Tony Roberts did in “Annie Hall,” to discuss the looming infidelity. From this point on, whenever Baldwin appears it isn’t certain whether he is present in the scene or a figment of Eisenberg’s imagination. Or perhaps the whole story is a figment of Baldwin’s imagination. As evidence to support this, the traffic cop doesn’t introduce Eisenberg’s character at the top of the film.
Allen probably doesn’t intentionally copy “The Flintstones” in the other segment, but he definitely copies himself in this one. Or perhaps he is deconstructing himself, because Baldwin draws attention to the filmmaker’s well-worn material, such as the pseudointellectual posturing of characters constantly making highbrow cultural references.
Eisenberg is adequate as this year’s Woody surrogate, but Page is terribly miscast as the neurotic seductress.
The last, and easily best, segment stars Benigni, who virtually vanished from America’s cinemas after winning two Oscars for “Life Is Beautiful.” (His disastrous, live-action “Pinocchio” had a lot to do with that.) The traffic cop introduces Benigni’s character as “an average Roman citizen of the middle class,” and his first few scenes bear that out.
Then when he leaves his home one morning, the paparazzi mob him in the street and a limousine arrives to whisk him to a television studio, where a morning show host solemnly interviews him about his breakfast. Overnight and without warning, Benigni’s nobody has become Italy’s leading celebrity.
Here Allen takes aim at a culture that obsesses over whichever real housewife of whichever city happens to be hot at the moment. He mined similar material in “Celebrity,” but that got muddled by the characters’ self-loathing. Allen keeps his aim tightly focused this time, and even if the target is an easy one, he scores hit after palpable hit. This is his most successfully sustained work in satire since the sublime “Zelig.”
The stammering Allen and the effusive Benigni wouldn’t seem the most natural comedy collaborators, but they create the funniest, most memorable segments of “To Rome With Love.”
The rest of the movie doesn’t reach the same heights as “Midnight in Paris,” but it is a continent apart from the grim Allen films of five to 15 years ago.
• Jeffrey Westhoff reviews movies for the Northwest Herald. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“To Rome With Love”
Who’s in it: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Jesse Eisenberg
What’s it about: Many characters in several storylines explore the fortunes of love and fame in sunny Rome.
Rated R for some sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes