In one of the more inventive episodes of “To Rome with Love,” Woody Allen’s neurotic (what else?) retired opera director comes to Rome with his wife to meet their daughter’s Italian fiancé. By chance, he finds out that the young man’s mortician father possesses a golden singing voice and immediately becomes taken with the idea of turning him into a star. The catch, however, is that this rather ordinary man is cripplingly shy and capable of proper singing only when he is actively taking showers.
What happens subsequently in this amusing little tale has the surreal touch of Allen’s New Yorker stories and such early, funny, pre-Annie Hall films as Love and Death, Bananas, and Take the Money and Run (still some of the funniest American comedies I have ever seen). As a loyal Allen fan, I experienced great pleasure in seeing him return to the big screen as an actor for the first time since 2006’s Scoop, and particularly with the added benefit of some very inspired silliness. This portion of the film alone makes To Rome with Love a worthy viewing.
By comparison, the rest of film’s four vignettes are competently zany, if not particularly remarkable. One story concerns another neurotic (what else?) – a young American architect (Jesse Eisenberg, destined from the start to appear in a Woody Allen film) who becomes infatuated with his girlfriend’s pseudo-intellectual friend (Ellen Page) while being advised and closely followed by an older architect (Alec Baldwin) whose existential status in the film is playfully unclear. Another story focuses on a provincial couple (the charming duo of Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi) that arrives in the ancient city only to become very, very lost, with the husband inadvertently becoming entangled with a prostitute (a game Penelope Cruz) and the wife with her favorite movie star (Antonio Albanese). Roberto Benigni also makes an appearance, in an amusingly understated performance and his first on-screen role in seven years, as a common Roman citizen who inexplicably becomes a celebrity and the center of excessive media attention.
These tales play out in a very loosely organized fashion and create a mosaic of contemporary Italy formally reminiscent of “The Decameron,” the sprawling stories of love by the 14th Century writer Giovanni Boccaccio that allegedly inspired the film. But in a style now familiar to anyone who’s watched Allen’s recent works, the view “To Rome with Love” takes of the great Italian city is unmistakably touristy and unrealistic, its stories purposely light and inconsequential. The obligatory landmarks are given their dues, glimpses of the city and the evocation of its milieu are unapologetically romanticized, and the stories of people falling in and out of love are perfectly derivative of Allen’s previous films.
The Eisenberg storyline, for example, is a perpetual Allen archetype most recently incarnated in “Anything Else” (with Jason Biggs as the neurotic young intellectual and Christina Ricci the attractive but unreliable romantic interest), the amorphous presence of Alec Baldwin brings to mind the ghostly Humphrey Bogart character in the 1972 Allen-penned comedy “Play It Again, Sam,” the attractive yet comical prostitute played by Penelope Cruz is another stock character most memorably embodied by an Oscar-winning Mira Sorvino’s in 1995’s “Mighty Aphrodite,” and the Benigni story explicitly refers back to the thematic concerns of Allen’s underrated 1998 satire “Celebrity.” Nothing is fresh or revelatory in “To Rome with Love”- the film is of course a far cry from greats like “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors”- but everything is adequately enjoyable.
To sit back and revel in this slackness, which some detractors have identified as a form of authorial laziness, is what it means to watch a new Woody Allen film these days. The most prolific filmmaker in modern American cinema, Allen works with an impressive discipline that has resulted in over forty films in just as many years for a rate of one film per year since the late 1960s.
Rather than evaluating the merit of his films individually on their own terms- they have become rather uneven in the last ten or so years (with the notable exceptions of the marvelous “Match Point” and “Midnight in Paris,” Allen’s biggest hit to date), watching an Allen film these days is to enjoy a legendary career unfolding, to revisit familiar themes and plot turns, and to indulge in a certain kind of fantasy and nostalgia about places, people, and even Allen’s own past films. There is comfort in the ritual of watching a new Woody Allen film, good or bad, year after year.
Moreover, the enjoyment of Allen’s lighthearted trifles is done with a keen awareness of his famous, unrelenting pessimism, which sits at the heart of his work and is in fact as much responsible for his comedies as it does his serious dramas. Allen has often referred to his extraordinary productivity as the result of constantly needing to distract himself from the thought of death and the awareness that the universe is ultimately meaningless. The gleeful frivolity that marks “To Rome with Love,” like its maker’s unstoppable habit of writing and making movies, is a direct acknowledgement that, since everything is futile, we might as well enjoy ourselves while it lasts.
This attitude may seem hopeless- Allen himself would say so- but the notion of making the best of our predicament, which manifests itself prominently in his films and in the very manner in which they are made, can be paradoxically life-affirming. The awareness of futility is, among other things, a source of wisdom and a reminder of the preciousness of life. We are grateful for the gift of life and everything in it in spite and because of the uselessness of it all. We eat, drink, and enjoy all the days that have been given to us under the run, because the days are finite, and because they are precious.
“To Rome with Love” is decidedly minor Woody. It has no pretension of being anything other than a pleasant diversion, but its unabashed frivolity and inconsequentiality are the marks of a veteran filmmaker who is having fun and who, in spite of everything else, invites the viewers to do the same. For 112 minutes, I was happy to go along. After all, there is a season for everything, even in Rome.