RIORI Vol 3, Installment 58: Woody Allen’s “To Rome, With Love” (2012)

To Rome With Love

The Players…

Woody Allen (surprise), Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page, with Alison Pill, Flavio Parenti, Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi.

The Story…

A washed-up record producer discovers a potential new star in the toilet. A young architect battles feelings for his girlfriend’s gal-pal as well as the advice of his wiser self. An average guy suddenly finds himself hounded by paparazzi, which is the ultimate mixed blessing for an average guy.

Only in the Eternal City, me amico. Let’s take a tour, shall we?

The Rant…

About a billion years ago here at RIORI (volume one’s fourth installment to be exact) I covered Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris. I argued that although the film was well received, it met The Standard by being “too smart” for the rabble. Most of Allen’s films are like that, even the goofy ones like Bananas or Sleeper. To quote Bill Hicks, I’ve noticed a certain anti-intellectualism in this country ever since 1980 to be sure. Nowadays I understand the need for most folks to check in and check out with some mindless cinematic drivel now and then (mostly now).

Smart movies are few and far between these days. Been that way for a while really, well sooner than 1980. When I say smart, I’m not necessarily talking intellectual, dense, snobby sh*t the likes that Lars von Trier, Louis Malle or even Werner Herzog put out. And if any of you out there in the blogosphere recognize those names, don’t fret none. You just like smart films. You ain’t no snob or nothing. Sorry to burst your bubble.

No. It’s okay to like smart films, but what do I mean by smart? Simple. Movies that don’t insult your intelligence. In fact, flicks that may tickle your frontal lobes and even make you think a little. Not in a cram for midterms kind of way, but a movie that may simply make you say, “Huh…” and then go about your day leaving a warm fuzzy somewhere in your cockles. If you can locate them. Where the hell are the cockles of your heart anyway? Probably near the sphincter.

Those flicks are few and far between. Poignant, tender, ribald and a lot of other adjectives you don’t use on a yearly basis. Mostly it’s a lark to hover into such a movie’s orbit. Based on The Standard’s criteria it’s happy hap hunting to track down one of these nuggets. They are there if you want them. Ask Fandango, and try to steer clear of the latest Sandler car wreck.

Woody Allen’s stuff has always been smart, from the dour Interiors to the delightful Annie Hall. Not intellectual per se, but decidedly not dumb (including the screwy sh*t like Take The Money And Run, again Bananas and the to recall a personal fave Sleeper). Sometimes that’s all it takes to have a smart film: not be dumb. In these times where Kevin James has a movie career and Michael Bay just basically exists, not being dumb at the cinema is trace element stuff. You occasionally need a sharp film to wipe away the kernels but not something regarding a beard-growing competition at the local craft beer plank. To be plain, smart movies are all about having a chuckle and knowing why.

The whole connect the dots nature of modern comedies sour me. I like my dumb sh*t as much as the next dude, and for all my slagging on the guy Sandler’s pretty funny (when he’s not forcing it). Still, and there’s always a still, you gotta take a left turn occasionally. So back to Allen. Smart films incarnate, and although I’m a bit of a fanboy, I’d be a liar to not claim his stuff’s a reliable source of cinematic entertainment even if sometimes his oeuvre may require a slide rule. Again, no matter. If the film’s satisfying, who cares?

Speaking of satisfying cinema, Allen’s last movie (and only movie) that went under the knife here at RIORI was Allen’s Midnight In Paris remember. To review the thing in brief, watching 2010 Owen Wilson carouse with the intelligentsia of 1920’s Paris was a lot of fun, even if you didn’t know that Gertrude Stein coined the phrase, “There’s no there, there.” You didn’t need a Masters’ in English lit to be down with Midnight In Paris (tho’ it might’ve helped), but if you were a patient soul in need of a chuckle and a low tier course in existentialism, then boom. Court dismissed.

I heard that a lot of Allen critics and pundits alike regarded To Rome, With Love as a companion piece to Midnight. I didn’t see it. Sure both were tributes to the feeling of the cities, atmospherics and aesthetics, but the tenor of the movies were as different as gauffes slathering in vanilla creme and chocolate covered espresso beans. Truth be told, Paris was about smart and Rome was about “Huh…”

That and Rome had way more music and even more sexual frustration…

Ah, Rome. The Eternal City. Very little has outwardly changed here in the past few millennia. Most of the great architecture still stands, if not still being used. The people are philosophical as ever, as well as passionate over culture, ideas of romance and hospitality (mostly regarding family meals). It’s a vibrant place despite the age. In fact, it’s history makes its contemporary culture all the more vibrant. Ask Hailey (Pill) who accidentally met her future finance Michelangelo (Parenti) there.

Since their only daughter is getting hitched, it would behoove Hailey’s mom Phyllis (Davis) and dad Jerry (Allen) to jump the Atlantic and check out what’s so special about Michelangelo and his beloved home. Turns out a lot, especially for Jerry’s ears. Oh yeah, and the forthcoming nuptials, too. But first, what’s that angelic singing coming from Michelangelo’s family shower?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, established architect of shopping malls John (Baldwin) excuses himself from his wife and guests to go on a little nostalgic walking tour. He lived in Rome years ago in college, and reflection compels him to walk the back alleys of his callow youth. He bumps into Jack (Eisenberg), a young architectural student who not only is on the same studies as John once was, but quite the fan of John’s work. Jack invites John back to his place, and down the rabbit hole they go.

In yet another quarter of the city, Leopoldo (Benigni) is your average, everyday office clerk. He lives with his average, everyday wife and kids. He drives the same average, ordinary car to said average, ordinary office job battling the average, ordinary rush hour traffic every day. Every day. Everyday. Leo’s a no-one, a typical Roman citizen. Nobody would pick him out of a lineup for doing anything remarkable.

Except the paparazzi. Apparently tired of the dirty laundry celebrities toss, Leopoldo is one day swept away from his drudgery to become the guest on the local news channel. When interviewed he’s asked about his morning routine: breakfast, shaving, picking out his wardrobe as if it were all vital information. According to the media it is, and by fault of his mundane existence Leopoldo becomes an overnight sensation. His wife and kids have to battle away cameras at the breakfast table. The world comes to him asking advice on how to best butter toast. He never has to wait for a restaurant reservation. Models slither around him. What a treat for such a lowly nobody!

But is this all there is?

According to a local traffic cop, not quite and not exactly…

Considering the (very mild for a change) rant, my take on To Rome, With Love is kinda akin to an AllMusic review to one of my choice albums.

Go with me here.

For those not in the know—and regarding how old and defunct the band is, no shock—there was this post-punk band Gang Of Four that created a minor stir back in the butt end of Britain’s punk craze. Their lyrics were very political, but delivered with a healthy dose of funk and groove which made the medicine go down. The AllMusic critic with their review cited their ironically titled sophomore effort Solid Gold‘s lyrical content was less “you’re all a bunch of mindless puppets” and more “think about it.” I guess it goes to say that it’s far easier to get a message across with the carrot and not the stick.

Even though Woody Allen’s muse is very much carrot, the stick comes in handy to prod the audience to attention. Worked well for Midnight In Paris. For To Rome, With Love? Not as much. Too much carrot, not enough stick.

I’ll get this out of the way: Rome‘s a pretty okay movie. Okay. It wasn’t compelling as Paris was, but then it was a rather different movie. What got retained from its “sister” movie was it being easygoing and inviting, besides the lovely setting. There’s warmth here, and a devil-may-care flow of the narrative. I mentioned Jim Jarmusch’s style, and we have segues like his films, moving from one chapter to the next. Rome‘s bookends are far gentler, making the intertwining factor easier to swallow. I’m not saying everything is seamless, but thanks to the atmosphere you kinda go “huh” rather than “what?” as Allen takes us on the trip. It’s essential to the narrative of course.

But of course this is a Woody Allen movie, which are often funny and they are narcissistic. Rome is Allen’s view of what the city means running perilously close to parody. Ostensibly Rome is a rom-com, but most of the com part comes from classic Allen one-liners. Sure, Begnini is a stitch as always (he’s a demented riot here) but again, Allen film, and his wry wit and neurotic self sets the timbre of this movie, not to mention virtually all his films (Interiors was the blunt exception). Not that this is a bad thing. Far from it. I hate to keep hammering on the notion that Rome is the flipside of Paris. Perhaps so, especially considering the style of offbeat, winking, goofy humor in play. But with Allen being slick as he can be the proper message and/or tone of Rome is akin to Paris‘ but much more subtle. What the hell, the man just follows his muse.

Both movies are about fantasies. Paris‘ was more overt, with 21st Century Gil jaunts back to early 20th Century Paris’ writers, actors and idols. Rome‘s corners aren’t nearly as square. We have Jerry’s infatuation with Mic’s dad’s gift, which might lift him out of resented retirement. John and Jack meeting each other with a sci-fi taste of future shock, only the way ’round. Leo’s camera barrage. All are fantastical, but within mental walking distance. With Gil we know. With this rabble, again, “huh.” It gets very existential, but not as hard-nosed as Paris delivered.

All right, where does the differences end? Here. Unlike ParisRome is feel good, a rarity for most of Allen’s films (at least consistently over the past 20 years). Rome is a trifle, light as air and never cribbing from Othello. Whereas Paris was heady and all philosophical, Rome is whimsical and philosophical. Sure, that social content is still there, but if you take the darn thing serious you’re wasting your time. And admittedly knowing where Allen comes from he tries to take his audience on a serious trip dappled with enough humor to fool you. Kinda like the joke’s on us. I repeat Rome is silly, but charming and still has all those Woody Allen thingies bouncing around.

What I’m getting at is that although Rome was entertaining, often vibrant, rather funny and typical Allen this flick was mostly for diehard fans. It wasn’t as lush as Paris (or Annie Hall, for that matter) despite the cool setting. Nor was it as thought provoking. Nope. Rome was a lark. A pretty good lark, especially with the whole John/Jack (get it?) chapter, but overall it was fanboy film. Betcha the hoi polloi waked out of the theater scratching their collective heads, maybe stumbled online to RIORI and read the opening manifesto. Yeah, it was that kind of movie.

There. There’s a f*cking sober, thoughtful review for you. Take ’em as they come, cuz I get pissy not being evil. Leave the gun and take the damned canoli already.

Sorry. Wrong film.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. Rome was overall a mild film, with some yuks-yuks and clever musings on identity and existentialism. Plus the backdrop was great. But this a film for fans only, not casual Allen viewers.

Stray Observations…

  • Jesse Eisenberg, twitchy as ever.
  • “Someone dead?”
  • The “shower scene” is the most sensible, ridiculous piece of comedy I have ever seen.
  • “Can you imagine working all that time on your back?” “I can.”
  • Nice touch with the thunder there.
  • “Milly! Milly! Milly!”
  • A kind of reserved Begnini is nice, but still why does having Roberto in this film confuse my brainpan into watching a Jarmusch chaptered film?
  • Page is every woman every guy has ever dated.
  • “You can f*ck me in the car. I’m okay with that.” Told ya.
  • Awesome stare, Alec. Simply awesome.
  • “There are many stories the next time you come.”

Next Installment…

Hey, remember when we were kids and used to play Cowboys & Aliens? No? Sorry, wrong planet.

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