Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Alessandro Tiberi, Alison Pill, Ellen Page
Fabio Armiliato, Flavio Parenti, Greta Gerwig, Jesse Eisenberg
Judy Davis, Penélope Cruz, Roberto Benigni, Woody Allen
When watching the newest Woody Allen movie, it's almost impossible not to bring up familiar issues; the most prominent of all being, of course, how Woody always brings up the same issues. However with each passing film, it becomes more obvious that even if his themes become repetitive, they are never dull and a so-so Woody Allen film is still leagues ahead of anything else being done.
Take To Rome with Love for example; after the delight that was Midnight in Paris, it seems almost "mediocre" in comparison to the pure joy exuded by the previous one and the deftness with which it wove different eras and stories. Yet the truth is that in each European city, Woody has made a movie that reflects the city's personality through his own neuroses.
Time and time again, he has exclaimed that his movies aren't autobiographical, and it would be easier to believe him, if he hadn't created a persona we have come to assume is the real Woody Allen.
In Rome, he plays Jerry, a retired musical director, married to a psychoanalyst (played with extreme gusto by the oh-so-ever-fabulous Judy Davis). Jerry is recently retired and according to his wife, equates this with being dead, therefore he sets his hopes in his daughter's (Pill) future father-in-law (Armiliato) a mortician who also happens to have an extraordinary voice.
Obsessed with turning this man into a star, in the process regaining back "life", Jerry dares to stage a version of Pagliacci that defies all good taste and after the critics speak unfavorably, his daughter goes "he's been called worse".
This fighting spirit, which acknowledges how Jerry didn't manage to please critics, might as well be meant to represent Allen's career. For all we know, what if the time-travel concept of Midnight in Paris had been deemed ridiculous? Or what if the ghostly themes in Scoop had been universally praised?
What we come to understand is that he isn't as obsessed with the result as he is with the creative process and that might very well be the unifying theme of the movie; how people are in a constant search of creation.
Besides Jerry's story, we have three other plots that make up the film: there's newlyweds Antonio (Tiberi) and Milly (Mastronardi) who get caught up in a misadventure borrowed from Fellini's The White Sheik and involves movie stars and prostitutes (played by Luca Albanese and Cruz respectively). We also meet John (Baldwin) a famous architect who becomes the voice of the conscience to the young Jack (Eisenberg) as he struggles between staying with his girlfried (Gerwig) or going after her free-spirited friend Monica (Page). Finally there's Leopoldo (Benigni in an unusually restrained performance) an everyman who one day wakes up to realize he's become famous.
All of these stories are told effectively and all seem to represent something that Woody might've wanted to explore further (perhaps on a feature length?) and the film's biggest flaw might be precisely that it wants to cover too much.
The forced finale of the John/Jack story for example (which echoes of the brilliant Vicky Cristina Barcelona) make it seem as if it's the resolution what matters the most and not the fact that we are never told if John is the older version of Jack, or if he's just a "friendly" manifestation of his subconscious or perhaps some playful spirit. Nuances like the Bergman-ian fact that Jack and John are practically the same name, get lost in the tangle of overwritten dialogues and awkwardness from Eisenberg and Page who never fully bloom as truly sexual creatures.
Then there's the delicious ode to home as seen in the newlywed story, which might not be linked to any other plot (none of the stories ever cross paths) but shares a theme with Leopoldo and his sudden overdose of fame. Allen is a wry observant and lets us know he's aware of how all the Kardashians of the world are occupying spots that once were allotted to people who earned their notoriety on positive terms.
The movie as a whole, despite its golden cinematography and constant reminders of the city's beauty, can't help but be tinged with bittersweetness, something Allen must've gotten from Fellini's La Dolce Vita, which also made us wonder about the price we pay for fame and reinventing our humdrum lives.
While Fellini's masterpiece had almost nothing pleasant to say about our society and even declared at one point, everyone would give their backs to purity in the name of hedonism, Allen's take is meeker and shall we say humbler? He is aware of the destruction and chaos, but he makes us look at Rome, with its gorgeous ruins and timeless architecture, and asks us if this isn't worth trying a little harder for.