'To Rome With Love' Continues Woody's Refreshing Road Show
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Woody Allen is well known as (among other things) a hater of rock music, but I wonder how he feels about the blues. Which is to say that a key to one of his major (you'll excuse the word) themes is not "I can't get no satisfaction," as per the Rolling Stones, but rather "I can't be satisfied," as per Muddy Waters. Allen's characters, in both the dramatic work and the early (and, of late, late) funny movies, have little problem in actually acquiring the accoutrements of comfort and fulfillment. They just have a lot of trouble settling for those.
It's this observation about human nature that fuels the four whimsical stories Allen tells in his new film, "To Rome With Love." While Allen's recent cinematic tour of the great cities of Europe (with the exception of 2009's "Whatever Works," every film he's made from 2005's "Match Point" on has been shot/set in Britain or the Continent) suggests to some cynic that his muse is merely following Old World production money, "To Rome With Love" has both a structure and a feel that's relatively specific to the title city. Not necessarily specific to life as it's actually lived in the place, but to the place's cinematic heritage. The light-fantasy underpinnings of three of the movie's tales call to mind a loose Fellini-esque mode, and the omnibus format threading together multiple stories with a common theme is very familiar in Italian cinema in particular.
What results is not the effortless seeming home run that many critics, this one included, thought Allen's last film, "Midnight in Paris," was. But "To Rome With Love" is consistently engaging and often very funny, largely avoiding groaners and bringing home its choice bits of life wisdom with a deft touch.
Alternating between Italian and English-language vignettes, the movie tells the stories of an opinionated salaryman (Roberto Benigni) who one day awakes to inexplicable fame and all its perks and downturns; a pair of provincial newlyweds whose meet-the-snooty-relatives Rome rendezvous is upended by a voluptuous hooker (Penelope Cruz) and an assignation misunderstanding; a successful middle-age architect (Alec Baldwin) who stumbles upon a typically Allen-esque young-love triangle that the viewer may suspect is a flashback into the architect's own Roman misadventure of decades before; and a fussy, retired opera director (Allen) who makes a discovery he believes will revive his career: a great tenor who can deliver only while standing in a shower.
The characters in the stories all come face to face with dissatisfactions they didn't even necessarily know they had; through twists of fate, they get to a side of life where they think the grass is greener; and they end in the same place, or a worse one, anyway. It's not fatalism so much as an argument that changing your life is an inside job, and it's made persuasively for the most part. I was particularly taken with the segment starring Baldwin. Allen's script has his three young lovers (Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, and Ellen Page) dropping many of the now-dated-for-contemporary-purposes cultural references that Annie Hall and Alvy Singer threw at each other back in the day, but because of the intimation that the whole thing is a flashback anyway, and because Baldwin's constant cynical/rueful talkback functions as a counter-critique, the episode soars when it could just as easily have sunk. It's a testament that Allen still has real artistic resourcefulness at his side.
What's already tripping some more literal-minded viewers up is Allen's structuring. The multi-director, multi-story Italian films Allen pays homage to here were largely linear in style, presenting each tale as a discrete unit, one after the other, while the four stories in "Rome" take place over different time frames -- a single afternoon, a few days, a couple of months, even -- and Allen intercuts between them throughout. You see this kind of unstuck-in-time technique a lot in late Buñuel, and while Allen is deft, he's not that deft, and some obtuse viewers might take his freedom for license. I wasn't bothered by it myself, and found "To Rome With Love" a refreshing summer entertainment, not too sweet but not terribly bitter, and very picturesque besides.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.