So maybe it lacks the timely thematic punch of “Midnight in Paris,” but that doesn’t mean I didn’t thoroughly enjoy Woody Allen’s latest, “To Rome With Love,” thoroughly and completely. Sure, it’s not going to be rise to the top of his filmography. Yet it’s a solid reminder of just how much of a comedic master Allen really is and just how effortlessly the laughs flow.
Part of my love of this movie could just be that I was in Rome a month before seeing it, though I will admit Rome gets a far more shallow portrayal than Paris. Nevertheless, while we miss out on the Eternal City, we are treated to generous helpings of Woody Allen. Since the story consists of four vignettes (which are really totally unrelated aside from their setting), we are treated to not one, not two, not three, but FOUR neurotic Woody Allen surrogates in one movie!
Now, if you hate the archetypical Woody Allen character with his nebbish misanthropy and his self-deprecatingly intellectual wit, then “To Rome With Love” will sound a lot like nails on a chalkboard to you. However, if you are like me and willing to sit through something dreadful like “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger” in the hopes of one classic Allen moment, then you could probably care less about a statement on nostalgia or beautiful, city-encapsulating ambiental cinematography. You’re just happy to see another Woody Allen movie. And for me, that’s enough.
The delight is magnified by the presence of Allen himself in front of the camera, not just behind it, for the first time in six years and for the best performance since 2000′s “Small Time Crooks.” He’s hired plenty of capable substitutes, such as Larry David in the riotously funny “Whatever Works,” to make his absence hardly noticeable. Yet seeing Allen sort out his own neuroses and cutting out the middle-man is truly such a wonderful sight to see, and “To Rome With Love” is a pleasant reminder that you really can’t beat the original, the real thing. Here, he’s grappling with old age and retirement, viewing even a momentary slowdown as all that Death needs to swoop in for the kill. It’s a clear shot of his mind, and it gives us great insight on how a 76-year-old can keep churning out a new movie year after year.
He has a little something to say about the “famous for being famous” culture that has really grown in the past decade, and he brings in the clownish Roberto Benigni to play the man whose life gets upended by fame that comes from seemingly out of nowhere. Benigni has been somewhat of a pariah after his antics at the Academy Awards back in 1999 – he’s only been in four movies since “Life is Beautiful” – though leave it to Allen to find a way to make his zaniness work.
Beyond that, the movie’s other two stories tackle familiar themes from Allen’s forty-year career: fidelity, love, truth, and strange mistakes and coincidences that work to reveal people’s true intents and desires. Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page with their fast-talking verbosity make for a great screen couple in the mold of Allen and Mia Farrow, and Penelope Cruz’s role as a prostitute with attitude not unlike Mira Sorvino in “Mighty Aphrodite.” Of course, none of these Oscar nominees match Woody Allen’s former colossal classics of comedy. But as long as he keeps figuring out a way to rehash these same stories and still make them feel fresh, I’ll keep watching and enjoying them. B+ /