Thursday, 20 September 2012

To Rome with Love

2012. Dir: Woody Allen. Starring: Woody Allen, Roberto Benigni, Alec Baldwin, Ellen Page and Penelope Cruz. ●●○○○

There's good and bad news to consider when reviewing Woody Allen's latest Eurocentric release. On the positive side it's not an offensively bad film there are a lot of nice moments of subtle amusement and clever tie ins to the history and genre of comedy and in that respect Allen has clearly carefully considered the outline of To Rome with Love. Unfortunately once the spark had been formulated it seems the creativity quickly stopped. Much has been written over the years about how Allen moves quickly from project to project without retrospection, so it's possible he had one eye on his next San Francisco set movie whilst in post, or maybe the pressure of plugging last years delightful Midnight in Paris was too much? Either way that simply isn't good enough, having some good ideas and tossing off some throwaway jokes for the characters won't make the finished project anything more than a pseud on celluloid.

There are a couple of significant milestones that take place in Woody's Italian holiday.  In the first instance it appears to be the last leg of his current European tour, which started with Match Point, with it's London locale in 2005, and has since visited Barcelona, Paris and now Rome, although this was broken by his New York travesty Whatever Works, an obscene piece of misogyny masquerading as free-spirited liberality.  Notably WW followed Vicky Cristina Barcelona which wowed critics and made $23m in the US box office, this allowed Woody to fund a US set film, which flopped and sent him back to his gallic backers cap in hand.  So when last years Midnight in Paris took over $56m, the highest ever box office take for one of Woody's directorial efforts, he once again returned to America.  This also marks the first time Woody has directed in a foreign language, sure there were snippets of Spanish in Barcelona, but the story focussed on American tourists and the language barrier was used to exclude our heroines from the action.  Here half of the film is in Italian, with two of the four storylines featuring no English at all.

The film opens with a traffic policeman talking to camera, introducing the variety of life he sees from the roundabout by the Coliseum in broken, effete english. There's the American student and the Italian socialist and the absurdest clash of cultures when their prospective parents meet, there's the sex farce involving newlyweds a film star and a prostitute, there's an ordinary middle class man who will wake up one morning to find his life overturned in a satire on celebrity culture and there's wordplay and insight as an architect takes a walk down memory lane.   There isn't much that connects the segments, other than mostly taking place in a public and (possibly) geographically suspect version of the eternal city.  They all belong to a heightened reality, but the closest to our normal perception would be the farce, and the timeframes are all over the place ranging from a few hours to over six months.  This lack of connecting tissue hamstrings the movie as a whole, as we jump from scene to scene between each competing plot it feels as unstructured as a ramdom chat with a traffic warden, meandering through four simultaneous jokes, weakening the punchlines of all of them.

The most interesting strand involves Alec Baldwin as a gifted artisan, wasting his talent on designing shopping malls, strolling though the back streets reminiscing about his gap year decades ago, when he stumbles on student Jesse Eisenberg there's a look of recognition and soon Baldwin is sagely offering advice to the lovestruck youth, torn between his live-in girlfriend Greta Gerwig (utterly wasted) and her seductive best pal Ellen Page.  There's a fascinating premise hidden underneath the usual Allen mannerisms and stock characterisations concerning the emotional scripts we live by and how we're the sum of our experiences, supported by sly sarcasm mixed with genuine pathos from Baldwin.  It's a shame that Eisenberg is forced to play the Allen surrogate (he even uses them in films he stars in!) and Page's actress vamp has no ultimately redeeming qualities other than her sex appeal.  Although I confess Allen might be using that to underline the unreliable narrative of memory.

On the other end of the scale, in that the concept seems cliched, is the neurotic adventures of Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi.  Arriving for the first time in Rome, their Honeymoon also needs to double up as an interview for Tiberi, when he introduces his wife to the disapproving in-laws who run the family business (no, I don't believe it's an Olive Oil import company).  When Mastronardi nips out for a haircut she gets hopelessly lost in the big city and (in a nod to classic Commedia dell'arte stories) local call girl Penelope Cruz gets drafted in to impersonate her.  Hijinks ensue.  As I've said before Allen should be applauded for trying something different here, but his erudite script, even when translated, is too wordy to allow the inevitable bedhopping any momentum, in spite of how hard the cast are working.

Roberto Benigni gets his chance to shine in the segment addressing the sham of celebrity, morphing from incredulous to bitterness to craving his fifteen minutes of fame with ease, but alas the segment messages are hammer home by some needlessly profound speeches from his chauffeur.  Finally the segment involving Allen himself boasts a shrewdly bitchy turn from Judy Davis but the opera in the shower plot and cheap national stereotyping makes it the one to skip through on the DVD.

On the craft side there's nothing of note here, but at least there's nothing negative.

For the ideas alone this might have been a worthwhile entry in Woody Allen's canon but he fails to bring the script up to the necessary standard making this one for the fans only.

1 comment:

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