Saturday, July 7, 2012

To Rome With Love

TO ROME WITH LOVE            B                 
USA  Italy  Spain  (102 mi)  2012  d:  Woody Allen

With age comes exhaustion.               —John (Alec Baldwin)

One thing can be said for Woody Allen movies—his actors have to know how to deliver dialogue, as words remain the heart and soul of his films, still not that far removed from where it all began as a stand-up comic in the Borscht belt of upstate New York.  While not so enthralled with the so-called magic of Allen’s previous Midnight in Paris (2011), feeling like a picture post card view of life with Allen namedropping his way through art history, what does appear to be clear is Allen’s continued interest in choosing beautiful women to grace the screen, always shooting them with more than a hint of sexual allure, where what we see onscreen is exactly how Allen sees women, as a kind of wish fulfillment rhapsodic delight, a sexual reverie, like a whiff of an exotic perfume that takes one’s breath away, where it’s all look but don’t touch for Allen at the ripe old age of 76 these days.   Instead of the delightfully witty and sophisticated charm of an intelligent Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow in the prime of their lives, now we get Penélope Cruz in a mini-skirt and cleavage.

More than anything else, this movie appears to be about superficialities and the illusion of happiness, much of it questioning the phoniness of Allen himself, where the use of Alec Baldwin as a Jiminy Cricket ghost of the male conscious is a strike of the sublime, as he initially appears to be real, supposedly a highly successful American architect who got ridiculously wealthy selling out his artistic vision and designing shopping malls.  When he meets the young Allen stand-in character, Jesse Eisenberg as a young American studying architecture in Rome, they supposedly meet by chance on the street where Baldwin (the middle-aged Allen) lived thirty years ago.  While he’s initially recognized as a living person, he soon only appears for Jesse, offering male advice on the affairs of love, making wise and sarcastic comments, unseen by all the others.  Jesse is living with the underutilized Greta Gerwig, who announces one of her American girlfriends (Ellen Page) will be arriving in the aftermath of a serious boyfriend breakup and will be staying with them.  Her introductory remarks appear written out of a men’s fantasy magazine, as much is an idealized and projected image of what men want to hear.  While Gerwig is steady and reliable, a kind of older version of love, Page has the kind of inescapable charm of someone caught up in the bloom of youth, where her allure is in her spontaneous unpredictability, where she’s willing to throw herself in any direction on a whim, always carefree and irresistible.  Baldwin has a field day seeing through her superficial banter, pretending to be a curious intellectual while really she knows just enough to mention a name or a line of poetry, something to make her appear smarter than she really is.  This is an amusingly clever stab at Allen himself. 

To the opening big band sound of Domenico Modugno singing “Volare,” the audience gets another postcard view of a modern European city that represents the cradle of civilization, where the gorgeous 35 mm cinematography by Darius Khondji perfectly captures the sunny grandeur of Rome.  Pictured as a love fantasia in the center of the universe, wayward American tourist Alison Pill is having trouble reading her map of Rome, so of course the first charming man offering assistance is named Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), which immediately blossoms into a full blown summer romance.  With love in the air, he wants to meet her parents, so Woody Allen (the late age Allen, where in this film he’s shown in three characters!) and Judy Davis fill the bill, with Allen resorting to the ageless shtick of one-liners, where he’s as funny as he’s been in any movie for awhile, supposedly in retirement from the music business, but when he hears Michelangelo’s father’s voice singing full-voiced opera in the shower, he can’t help himself, turning into an exaggerated caricature of an agent with newly discovered talent on the market.  Remember BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984)? The fact that the father is a mortician by trade means nothing, as Allen only sees bright lights on a marquee, where life as an illusion seems to be the basis of art.  Simultaneously, yet another storyline features two rustic Italian newlyweds, Alessandra Matronardi and Alessandro Tiberi, who honeymoon in a Rome hotel, but they get separated when she loses her way to the hairdressers and ends up on a movie set where she’s seduced by Italy’s notorious leading man, Antonio Albanese, where her marital fidelity is immediately tested by the more grandiose and spectacular cinema illusion of love.  Alessandro, meanwhile, is tested in much the same way, as the barely clad Penélope Cruz arrives as a gift-clad prostitute who will fulfill any of his sexual dreams.  Practical matters come first, and as his wife is missing, she’ll do as a wife substitute, which is none other than a shocking revelation to his overly conservative family.

Perhaps the most ridiculous storyline is the return of Roberto Benigni, an ordinary clerk whose typical dreary married life is interrupted when he suddenly finds himself as the center of attention of hounding paparazzi who think he’s a famous actor, picked up by a limousine, whisked away to a spacious office on a studio lot, where a curvaceous secretary supplies his every need.  With neverending television cameras stuck in his face while he’s shaving or showering, this is the illusion of celebrity, believing Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp have all the luck, where he is asked the most inane questions.  All the attention turns him into someone else he barely recognizes, where he eventually yearns to be back to his simple and ordinary life again.  While the introduction of each intersecting storyline initially brings an instant rush of exhilaration, the film runs out of gas by the end as Allen only understands the initial concepts for a joke, and not really as a story.  The lack of an ending is quite noticeable, especially considering how well the material works initially, but none of the segments end well with an apparent return to reality, which couldn’t be more boring compared to all the props and attention paid to creating such a hyped up illusion.  While an Allen film remains uniquely grounded in dialogue, despite all the attention to philosophizing and love, it’s quite apparent by the end that these characters have served the director’s purpose and have little more to say to one another.  It’s surprising how shallow it all feels afterwards, almost as an afterthought, where even the orchestrated Italian music feels generic and overused by the end, leaving no emotional connection whatsoever.  It’s interesting that Allen is utilizing so much fantasy this late in his career, particularly in his last two films, where time traveling and an invisible male (middle-age Allen) conscious are unique choices in expanding the breadth of characters, but this film only touches the surface of Rome or Italian movies, which is exactly what his last film did with his nostalgic tribute to Paris in its artistic heyday. 

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