Movie Review: To Rome with Love, written and directed by Woody Allen

With an over-sized brace on my knee, a bottle of Vicodin in my pocket and a set of “just-a-bit-too-tall” crutches, I limped down to the corner, grabbed the 57 Bus on 4th street, and rode it to Walnut where I hobbled over to the theater to see Woody Allen’s latest film, To Rome with Love.

I used the word “hobble” intentionally because that was what Woody Allen seemed to have done with this collection of slight stories set in Rome, the eternal city. He took several disparate tales and hobbled them into some sort of unity– a whimsical investigation of fame and celebrity, set under the bright Roman sun. (It is noteworthy, that very few scenes take place after sunset–there is the finale on the Spanish steps and a cheesy storm-scene in the Roman Baths. The rest is filmed beautifully in the bright Italian sun.)

There are four basic stories:

♦ a young architect with dreams of greatness and confused romanticism is being advised by the pedestrian man he will become.

♦ a funeral director with a magnificent operatic voice can only sing in the shower.

♦ a newly wedded bride is seduced by a celebrated actor, an incompetent hotel thief, and her newly educated husband.

♦ a middle-class man becomes famous for no reason at all.

Each story is successful to varying degrees.  And each has its own charm…to varying degrees.

Alec Baldwin plays the elder architect watching his younger self stumble through a risky affair. Woody Allen himself plays a retired opera impresario trying to get the shy mortician to sing on stage. The Italian actress, Alessandra Mastronardi,  plays the timid newlywed who is bedazzled by her favorite actor. And Roberto Benigni plays the hapless man who becomes–for no reason at all–the most famous man in Rome.  The stories are not connected but move from one to another easily.

Allen has proven before that no one makes a location look as attractive as he can, and here again, he does for Rome what he has previously done for Paris, Barcelona, London, and–most readily–New York.  He also proves that he has the ability to get wonderful performances from his actors.  Alec Baldwin is all self-effacing and snarky wisdom; Penelope Cruz seems to be channeling those  mid-century Italian film stars–Sophia Loren and Gina Lollabrigida; Benigni is permitted to clown with little restraint; and even the young actors–Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, and Ellen Page–are given room to breathe into their roles.  On screen, Allen, reprises the role he has played forever–the neurotic, death-fearing, nebbish.  But perhaps the most extraordinary performance is that by the great, internationally-acclaimed tenor, Fabio Armilato, who plays a man who can only sing in the shower and who gamely lets Allen place him in several showers throughout the film.

Allen has long proclaimed his love of European movies–he famously dabbled in Bergman-esque type films in the late 1970s–and earlier this summer he listed four Italian movies that he felt influenced him profoundly. Two were by the director Vittorio de Sica (The Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine), one by Michelangelo Antonini (Blow-up) and one by Federico Fellini (Armacord). He stated that these films changed the way stories could be told, a narrative arc very similar to that which he would use in many of his own films.

He quipped about his love of European film: “I wanted nothing more than to be a foreign film director, but, of course, I was from Brooklyn which is not a foreign country.”

And yet, while To Rome with Love is an entertaining two hours, it is much less substantial than the four films he had referenced. Even as a comedy, it lacks a certain gravitas.

No, by no means is To Rome with Love a hearty, four-course Italian meal–and maybe it is not meant to be.

Simply, it is a lovely four-scoop of gelato. And sometimes that’s all you need to get you through a Saturday afternoon.

If you haven’t seen the trailer, here it is:

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