Silver Screen: To Rome with Love ***1/2
Woody Allen is quietly incomparable. The nebbish comic-turned-film auteur reached the zenith of his cultural influence way back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he racked up awards and accolades, demonstrated his ability to move from zany comedy to heavy drama, and forever altered the romantic comedy with his game-changing Annie Hall.
His influence may have ebbed a bit, but his talent has not. In the thirty-plus years since, he's written and directed another three dozen or so films, bringing his lifetime total to more than forty. Along the way he's learned to more deftly blend comedy and drama, no longer zig-zagging from throwaway comic trifle (Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex) to dour psychological examination (Interiors) but integrating great jokes into heady subject matter.
The longevity is impressive, but the continual evolution is astonishing. Allen's last film, the breezily erudite Midnight in Paris, was his most financially successful movie. Though that's attributed in large part to inflated ticket prices, the fact that a seventy-six-year-old director can find new high-water marks is itself an accomplishment.
Allen's response to any success is the same as his response to any failure: Make another movie. And so he has. His latest, To Rome with Love, is lighter fare, featuring four vignettes about tourists and native Italians falling in and out of love. It's something of a throwback to his early days when his movies drew on his experiences as a sketch writer, and it's a welcome return.
A beautiful American tourist (Alison Pill) falls for a native Roman (Flavio Parenti). But when her parents fly across the Atlantic for a visit, her father (Woody, being Woody), a workaholic music producer, butts heads with her hot-tempered fiancé and confounds the rest of the family by trying to turn her future father-in-law into an opera sensation.
Across town, another visitor is wreaking havoc in a young couple's romance. An ambitious young architect (Jesse Eisenberg) is happily domesticated with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig)-- at least until her best friend, a fickle, sexually voracious actress (Ellen Page) threatens to come between them. To navigate the situation, he takes advice from his idol, a snarky, wise master architect who's only present in his imagination. Alec Baldwin, playing the sagacious architect, weirdly seems to reprise his role from the Mastercard commercials, but he gets off some great one-liners. Eisenberg, somewhat unsurprisingly, turns out to be a great stuttering-and-blinking stand-in for a Young Woody Allen character.
The most high-concept vignette features Roberto Benigni as an affable Italian office worker whose humdrum life becomes fodder for the press when one day he inexplicably becomes famous for being famous. Camera crews record his every move, journalists quiz him on his choice of breakfast food, and women seek him out, turning his simple life into chaos. Benigni is hysterical here, generating the biggest laughs with his wide-eyed reaction shots to his sudden and baseless fame in a nice little parable about the nature of celebrity.
The weak link of the quartet stars Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi as a pair of lovers from a small town who aspire to the cosmopolitan life in Rome, but on a visit to the city they become separated. Through a case of mistaken identity, he becomes entangled with a beautiful prostitute (Penélope Cruz) while she goes on a date with her favorite actor (Antonio Albanese). The performers in this segment, Cruz aside, lack the charisma of the rest of the ensemble. More awkwardly, it seems to take place on a different timeline than the remainder of the movie, unfolding during the course of a single day while the others cover weeks.
Allen smartly avoids trying to overlap the four stories. They’re linked only by their shared locale and flourishes of magical realism. It's a lightweight collection but not a frivolous one. Oddly enough, it's also the least evocative of his European travelogue films; though the Roman setting is the only bond between the four tales, it doesn't quite capture the Italian city the way Midnight in Paris fawned over historic bistros and cafes or Vicky Christy Barcelona painted portraits of the Spanish countryside. Still, the whimsical approach and beautiful photography do make it feel like a two-hour summer vacation.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.