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.

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 28: Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)


The Players…

Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Alison Pill, Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons, Ellen Wong, Kieran Culkin, Anna Kednrick and Aubrey Plaza.

The Story…

When the literal girl of his dreams Ramona starts popping up in his life-on-hold, slacker musician Scott Pilgrim wakes up. But to win the love of this rollerblading goddess, Scott must vanquish all seven of her evil exes in martial arts battles. You read that right. Bonus round!

The Rant…

I’ve covered a few comic book-based movies here at RIORI. To note, we’ve seen Green Lantern, the Watchmen, Iron Man, Superman (twice) and the Spirit (once and only once. Ugh) raked over the coals by the Hollywood combine, most of them with confused results. My responses have been generally positive than not on my watch, by the way. I try to separate my bias from…some other bias. To save time and spittle (and I’m slowly learning my readers can sometimes tire of the spray), most of the middling comic book adaptations I’ve seen under The Standard have been palatable, at times even enjoyable. But I think not all comic books deserve the dubious honor of making it to celluloid, or whatever they use these days.

Set the way-back machine, yet again, for the not too distant past. Oh, quit groaning. You made the hit here, didn’t you? This one’s gonna a get a bit more personal than before, and admittedly has very little to do with the context of this week’s movie. Why and what for? Well, sometimes you gotta just blog when you have a blog. Didn’t you learn anything from the Control installment?

2005. Between reality and semi-sobriety, a decade ago I decided to find a job. The inheritance that I had plopped into my lap was fast wasted on booze, pills, ennui and a grad school degree. Well, almost on that one. The only clear-headed thing I did with that wad of cash. I burned away my prospects and not a few bridges. Addictions are like that. You trade turns in the road only as often as you find the freakin’ road. So I was broke, strung out and stuck terminally in my late-20’s living under the ‘rent’s roof to get on the mend with my feet touching the pavement. Some pavement, anyway.

The job part comes in later. Remember my screed attached to the prior installment? Fire, walk with me; it’s a stinkin’ blog.

There was one addiction I used to have that remained dormant for a long time, however. And believe me, it did far less damage than the aforementioned blurs. Bless childhood.


Since middle school comic books were one of my balms against the cruel realities tweendom. I got hip to the funnies in summer camp, back when the sensible price for a new Marvel ish was a respectable 60 cents. This was the 80s. Yes, Millenials, I am old. So’s yer f*ckin’ iPhone 5s. The camp had a “system”; the parents doled out some discretionary spending that yeilded coupons for various items at the camp “store.” On sale was candy, cheap toys like balsa wood gliders and kites and, of course, comic books. The decent 60 cent kind. I wrapped my imagination around the likes of the X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man and—back in ‘85—issues from Marvel’s “New Universe.” For the uniformed, the New Universe was a line of then-new Marvel titles with brand new characters and storylines not drawn from their classic canon. It was launched in honor of Marvel’s silver anniversary. These titles, although new, were kinda derivative, stale and on the whole sucked. But as brand new stuff for a brand new collector such as myself, it was pretty cool overall. Anyway, the line tanked before the year was out, and it more or less caused then Marvel Editor-in-chief Jim Shooter to resign his position in frustration and shame. Them’s the breaks.

Fast forward many years, up until high school. I quit collecting comics upon graduating middle school. Why? Not for a very good reason; comics were for kids. I was in high school now, a big boy. I got rid of almost all my books and delved instead into regular books, music, writing and pursuing the opposite sex with complete futility. You know, you mature. Or rather you just get older, and not necessarily wiser.

(By the by, according to the history books, the ‘90s were a terrible time for comic books. Sh*tty stories, bad artwork, prices skyrocketing and the ol’ House of Marvel even filed for bankruptcy. In other words, I didn’t miss out on much during the ‘90s. Call it blind luck.)

Jump ahead again a decade or so. A college graduate. Time for the real world, which I avoided completely for most of the ‘00s as the abovementioned confessional explained. I gave up on most of my existence, mostly living for my Friday nights (and Saturday’s, and Sunday’s, and…), generally hand-to-mouthing it the rest of the week. I had a hard time holding down a job, and lived a Bukowskian existence for a few seasons. While I was trying to my head together, I reflected on “what went wrong” and backtracked, trying to assess the damage. I won’t go into great detail here, other than I tried to relive my past. That and I began collecting comic books again. It was a hesitant step, mind you. I heard about the abortive ‘90s and tentatively perused what had came before. Ugh. I got turned onto manga instead, and eventually weaned my way up back to America again. The turn of the century, after some housecleaning, brought about a Renaissance to the comic industry. That and prices, although higher, had stabilized. Again, I lucked out.

Between moping and scraping together what little cash I could, I began to frequent, or rather re-frequent the local comic shop of my youth. The owner, Jeff—who still holds court in the place for over twenty-five years. Quite an accomplishment for an independent comic book store, or any indie bookstore for that matter—was a sometimes acerbic, always opinionated but overall friendly dude who was also, of course, encyclopedic in his knowledge of the art form and history of the medium. To say his store had a lot of books is akin to saying the Antarctic is a tad chilly. Thanks to his hospitality and salesmanship, he re-activated the dormant comic-collecting addict I had once been in my callow youth. This was a major turning point for me, whether I knew it or not, and I slowly began to get my sh*t together.

Instead of carousing at my local watering hole, I hung out with Jeff and our fellow comic patrons (he kept late business hours) of all stripes. Young and old, male and female, black and white; it was a real crazy quilt of folks that would either shop and/or just chill there. I’d do some shopping, argue the merits of this book or that with Jeff and crew, or just simply hang and shoot the sh*t. I began to heal, although I didn’t know it at the time.

One day, I was doing that week’s shopping when Jeff extended either a hand of goodwill (he knew of my troubles, financial and otherwise) out of either being the charitable sort or knowing I was fast becoming one of his best, most reliable customers. Maybe both. In any event, he asked me about my work prospects. He must’ve known I was down on my luck by my constant yapping yap. Job opps? I said I had a few—meaning zero—irons in the fire, and then he made his pitch. He needed a guy to mind his store nights, from 5 till close 6 nights a week. He wanted someone he knew, perhaps trust and definitely not a snot-nosed kid who’d only rifle through the “adult books.” It didn’t pay much, but he would throw in an “employee discount” for me as a bonus. So whaddya say?

Of course I took it. Yes, the gig did indeed pay peanuts (and most of those peanuts were fed back into the elephant), but it got me out of the house—and bar—with a semi-productive routine. I managed the register. I recommended books in a salesman-like way, not some frothing fiend fresh outta momma’s basement. I was at in-stores, charitably promoting the local and not-so-local talents. I was also witness to the sad spectacle of life-arrests actually getting into fistfights over arguments regarding who could beat whom: Thor vs. Superman. On more than one occasion, I had to physically, but politely escort such ruffians out the door, reminding them to not carelessly chip a tooth on the concrete (sh*t like this really happened, Kevin Smith plot or no). As for promotion, the then EIC of Marvel Joe Quesada did a Q&A via conference call at the store, candidly fielding all of our geekish questions about what Spider-Man was gonna do next month. And the next. And the next. And the you get it. Joe suffered our silly inquiries handily and with much humor. I figured he was an old hand. After dealing each Wednesday with the usual rabble-rousers, I could only imagine what ol’ Joe has to do weekly with shareholders. It was all in good fun, and I wished I had only found a gig like this sooner.

At the end of the day, and I can’t repeat this enough, my time immersed in the comic book world as I had never done before in my youth became a lifejacket in a drowned world of my doing. Am I clean? Hell’s no. I tipple every time I watch a movie for this abortion. I smoke a lot too. Occasionally I’m solicited by co-workers with wondrous tales of the rapture that coke and weed may provide. Whatever. In this day and age, I find it takes a strong soul to say just that. I mean, look who we have to vote for. Still, my current vices possess the aegis of legality on its side. I’ll remain there for the time being. So long as the current Marvel/Disney hydra fails to notice its eighth head (you figure that one out, with your iPhone 6 Plus, bright boy).

Now. What I’m finally getting to here, is like the classic Cobsy line: I told you that story to tell you this story. While I was in “rehab,” immersing myself and getting caught up on the adversities of my favorite superheroes had triumphed over during my collecting absence, I came upon a format of comic book that I only had a passing understanding of: the graphic novel. I knew that publishers would often compile a story arc of a particular title—say, the Avengers—into an omnibus edition; it was simply collecting several back issues into one comprehensive whole, like a trade paperback. During my manga years, I only collected comics in this format (I initially thought all manga was published in this way). I wasn’t aware of stand-alone graphic novels of a single story and artwork carried across a self-contained package until my time at the comic store.

The first example of a “true” graphic novel came in the form of Harvey Pekar’s Our Movie Year. It documented Pekar’s experiences getting his long-running, cinema verite series American Splendor made into a movie. Pekar has sort of become the archetype for this style of comic book storytelling. I’ve read other novels of his, like the bio of his friend in Michael Malice: Ego and Hubris and his urban historical, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland—a complete account of his beloved hometown—the backdrop to his Splendor series. I dug into other novels: Alison’s Bechel’s autobiography, Fun Home, about growing up gay set against the backdrop of her family’s business, a funeral home as well as an adaption of Paul Auster’s City of Glass and other novels by Frank Miller, Alan Moore and others. These comics had little to do with superheroics, more to do with drama and humor. If conventional comic books were USA Today, graphic novels were the New York Times.

More like premium cable, actually. If you wanted to watch Homeland, Shameless or The Affair, you’d have to plunk down some extra cash. Like these cable series, graphic novels offered up a bit more freedom to explore more mature content than you average ish of Spider-Man (and like HBO, the prices were higher). Some stories were dramatic, others scary, some humorous. On the humorous side, and also attempting ironic commentary on folks from my generation, was this little collection called Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Here, before I run on any longer, I’ll simply jump to the synopsis and get on with the meat grinding:

Once upon a time in Toronto…

Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is the archetypal 22-year old slacker. No real job. No real prospects of any merit. Living in his dingy flat shared by his pompous, gay roomie Wallace (Culkin). Endlessly the bane of his younger sister’s (Kendrick) existence. Adrift, and he likes it that way.

Scott’s got nothing better to do with his days except endlessly pluck bass with his going nowhere garage band (the knowingly named Sex Bob-Omb) losers Stephen Stills, Young Neil and grumpy Kim (Simmons, Webber and Pill, respectfully). Oh, and on the side, date some 17-year old girl from a catholic school, the fetching Knives Chau (Wong). Right. Scott has a sh*tty track record for dating. His list is short and sweet and hopefully won’t get any longer wooing this recipe for a crime.

Then one fateful night, it comes to him in a dream. Really. A dream. The true “girl of his dreams,” whom at first could only be a figment of Scott’s staid imagination trying to break free. So when at a party, Scott and his amigos hear about a local battle of the bands—networking! This could be the way to Sex Bob-Omb’s big break!—there she is…

Her name is Ramona Flowers (Winstead), an ex-pat from New York City trying to settle down and find some stability in the Great White North. With her punky garb, snarky ‘tude and locks of many colors, Scott is transfixed. If not by her presence, then by the fact she has a presence outside his mind. Hey, all men are great in the their dreams, right? Scott pleads to the fates that this is true.

Ramona is somewhat taken with Scott’s geeky charm, but is reluctant to commit to any kind of relationship just yet. Not unlike Scott, she’s had some bad turns in the road on the dating scene. In fact, she’s had seven. Seven really whacked-out relationships that more or less scared her off to Canada. Scott thinks out loud: How bad could they have really been?


At the fated battle of the bands, Scott gets a taste (one of seven) of what Ramona warned him about. In a less than straight line, Scott faces off with one of Ramona’s exes, who apparently followed her flight up north. To win her, Scott must defeat him, Mortal Kombat style. Wait. This poof with the Lina Yamazaki hairstyle and his raiding of Prince’s wardrobe, this guy dated Ramona? And what about the psychic vegan bass player (Routh)? Or the witless, square-jawed action hero actor (Evans)? Or the Goth girl…girl? Or the twins!?!

Yikes. It’s like one of those video games Scott never plays, but (dum-dum-dum) it’s for real. How the heck is he gonna get past this rogue’s gallery of jealous freaks and win Ramona’s heart? Wit? Grit? Basslines?

And what’s Knives gonna think…?

It’s movies like this that make me question whether I was the target audience or not. The endless video game references, indie music soundtrack, alt-scene caricatures and the like seem to be aimed at me. Seem. However while watching Pilgrim, I got the creeping, crawling sensation that I had (shudder) grown beyond these hooks.

No, I’m not. All of it was just poorly executed.

Let me get one thing clear right now: I’ve never actually read Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I was aware of it. It slouched on the shelves at my former place of employ, but I never picked it up. After watching the film version, I kinda wished I had. Along with that sneaking suspicion that the raison d’être for Pilgrim on film was slipping past me, I also felt that taking the story out of its original context was doing me no favors. And the film was lousy with bleeps and bloops that winkingly told the audience that, hey, this was originally a comic book!

I mean—ahem—graphic novel.

I understand that for over a decade comic book movie adaptations have been en vogue, but not all books really need an adaptation. Admittedly, Pilgrim had an interesting way of “adopting” the comic book format for a movie. A lot of the gimmicks of the trade (sadly mostly clichéd concepts) were employed on screen. Sound effects—a la the 60’s Batman TV show—action lines, dialogue balloons, asides to the audience and ridiculous scenes of fight scenes lifted from hyperactive video games like Mortal Kombat, Looney Tunes chase scenes and/or supernatural portals into otherworldly, kaleidoscopic world via Dr. Strange’s sanctum sanctorum, all were employed to keep you in on the joke. Unfortunately, the joke’s not that funny.

Even the editing is comics panel-like. Scene to scene, things just swoop in and out of view like some slideshow with a corrupted file. I guess this was to come across as surreal—and believe me, Pilgrim has surrealism in spades—but it also was exhausting. The pace is so frenetic that if you felt you missed something, you probably did. Trying to make sense of what you see here makes no sense.

And despite the breakneck dynamics, Pilgrim feels boring. I say feels, not is. Yes, the plot is a well-trodden road, yet the overall vibe of the movie tries to have some verve. But this movie drags. At an almost two hour running time, Pilgrim is something of a slog. It feels like all of this sh*t could’ve been wrapped up on a nice, neat 75 minutes. It doesn’t; Pilgrim goes on and on and on. I blame the stale script and the tired storyline. This movie looks like it’s not supposed to be boring, but it sure as hell feels that way. Plus it has a corny, after-school special kind of ending. Did that ruin it for you? No, it didn’t.

Other than the threadbare plot, Pilgrim is a movie about the dynamics of being dumped. In the long run, you learn from it. But the short run runs so quick that, even for maybe a few months, it feels eternal. It’s ultimately harmless and a fact of life. Under normal circumstances, tempered with a reality that excludes the dumped, a breakup seems world ending over a span of some very long days. We’ve all been there, and many of us may be there again in the future. Like I said: fact o’ life. If that’s the message of Pilgrim, it seems a little high-minded. Okay, I said it, but I think I was trying to put something into the film that wasn’t there in the first place. Most of it seemed like a lot of Gen X audience bating, but I never read the graphic novel, so what do I know?

Is Pilgrim Gen X nostalgia? I’m not sure. There are those tiring video game in-jokes, and the music is the post ur-grunge that saturated the marketplace circa 1995. But the series was launched in 2004, and I think that might be too soon to wax poetic about ago in this case. Overall, Pilgrim really reads like Looney Tunes meets Dazed and Confused. Is this supposed to be a comedy? Because it’s not terribly funny. Sometimes the snappy dialogue is engaging. When forced, not so much. And the hell of it is that director Wright is a vet of the alt-comedy standup circuit in LA. I figured here he was trying to apply his craft on film. Actually weld is a better term; welding shows its seams.

Pilgrim is trying too hard to be “hip.” But it’s catering to the wrong crowd. Seriously. Gen X virtually invented cynicism towards pop culture while simultaneously embracing it. If the producers of Pilgrim was aiming to make it a tongue-in-cheek lambast of everything “cool” in 90’s alterna-culture, then they should of took a step back and rethink their drink (Christ, even writing that sounds hopelessly 90s. I suck). I cringed a lot here.

One final carp (you’re welcome): Pilgrim is suffering from a bad case of The Matrices here, and not in just overt terms. Never has CGI been used so wastefully. It’s an extension of the forced hip pretenses of the movie. I know that nowadays you couldn’t execute the same kind of video game F/X here without digital aid (most moviemakers simply don’t want to), but it sure gets numbing. Made to make Pilgrim more comic book-y? I dunno. Maybe it was like that in the book. I’m still at a loss there.

Universal’s jump on the comic book cum movie bandwagon falls short here. Then again, I might be completely wrong in my opinions. All the other movies based on comic books I’ve taken apart here at RIORI I was a least familiar—even in passing—with the source material. When one goes to see a movie based on pre-existing media, comic book or otherwise, part of the enjoyment of the film stems from what the director lifted and (hopefully) got right from the book. I didn’t have that here, and it was entirely my fault.

Then again, a good movie—adaptation or no—should lend itself to some enjoyment at least. That was sorely lacking here in Scott Pilgrim’s world. The whole thing was a grind.

A grind. Y’know. Like in video games? That’s hip.

The Verdict…

Rent or relent it? Relent it. It’s stupid. If this is Universal’s hope of tossing its erstwhile notion of hip into the ring of the lucrative comic-as-movie trend, then they have dysplasia.

Stray Observations…

  • Seinfeld reference! Definitely Gen X nostalgia.
  • “Pirates are in this season!”
  • I have an affinity for Rickenbacker basses. Must be my early-Rush fanitude speaking.
  • Evans is really enjoying his role here. You can tell. He also has great facial hair.
  • It appears that the rabble who blinded and willfully go to the multiplex have little to no concept of dues ex machina It gets shamelessly employed here in Pilgrim World a lot. Good work, advertizers! (That’s not a typo.)
  • I tried veganism for a few years. Lost some weight, which, in fact, I needed to (lost some muscle mass, too, though). My blood pressure improved, as well as my endurance. A poorly maintained vegan diet however, as mine was (I then knew nothing of quinoa) is a highway towards anemia. Been there. On the whole, and not out of hipster dynamism, one should experience once in a while a diet sans animal products. You’ll feel quite clean and refreshed. And after a few months sanity will set in and you’ll be queuing up at Mickey D’s for the semi-annual relaunch of the McRib wearing nothing a lobster bib. Really, try quinoa.
  • “Kick her in the balls!”
  • Was that Thomas Jane? Awesome! “No vegan powers!”
  • DRUM. Heh.
  • Pill is the best actor here, deliberate or not. As the eye of this hurricane, her flat affect works wonders.
  • “What are you doing?” “Getting a life.”
  • Up up down down left right left right A B (select) start.

Next Installment…

John Cusack quits sleepwalking through movie roles long enough to rejoin the Adult World, if only for one film.


RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 4: Woody Allen’s “Midnight In Paris” (2011)


The Players…

Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cottiliard, Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll, Adrien Brody and Kathy Bates.

The Story…

Would-be novelist Gil visits Paris with his fiancé and her family to soak up the local culture. One night, after too much family time, Gil hitches a ride in a classic Peugeot and finds himself magically transported back in time to the Paris of the 1920’s. Gil finds rubbing elbows and trading drinks with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other luminaries of the ex-pat Jazz Age sure beats yet another jaunt to the Louvre.

The Rant…

I only like good movies. I often scan AllMovie or Netflix to see if my opinions of movies match up with what either the critics’ takes are or what audience ratings indicate. But are the films good because they jibe with what strangers have to say? Because there are other like-minded people out there with agreeable opinions such as my own? Is this snobbery? Everyone thinks that his or her tastes are great. Folks can get pretty heady about such stuff.

I dunno. Maybe. Like I said, I only like good movies.

Maybe I was little too harsh in my last installment, covering the mindwipe that was Drive starring Ryan Gosling and Bryan Cranston. It wasn’t all bad. It had its moments. It just wasn’t what I wanted to expect (and I didn’t really know what to expect). I still wouldn’t recommend it though. What I’m saying is a little thoughtfulness in my critiques might be a welcome thing. I can rail with the best of them, and when a film is disjointed, poorly paced, fails to follow interior logic, or if the acting is just plain dumb, I get cranky. But still, I feel a little thoughtfulness can go a long way.

Which brings us to this installment. Midnight In Paris was not a critical dud, and audiences happily plunked down their monies to catch it. So how does this film fall under the aegis of “dubious reputation of lack of box office mojo?” One small thing that I intend to expound upon for as many paragraphs as it takes. That thing the audiences were complaining about—if you can believe this coming from Woody Allen’s oeuvre—that it was “overly intellectual.”

Like this is a crime. We as filmgoers are already fed to the choking point—mostly during summer—with so much pabulum already, one would think a intellectual film that did well at the box office would be a good thing. I think it is. I’ve seen enough lowbrow films in my day (and don’t get me wrong, I find I like any Adam Sandler movie that has him playing a sport delightful. Too bad there are, like, only two) to bang my head against the wall and spit up my popcorn, threatening to walk out of the theatre. But I also like my Fellini, Kurosawa and, yes, Woody Allen films too. Most of those are thoughtful, smart pieces of cinema that could be or were popular.

So what’s wrong with “smart film?” Does it make the average moviegoer feel dumb? I heard somewhere that there was a theater warning patrons that Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life had, not graphic violence, sexual situations or extreme language, but “philosophical overtones and existential themes”. Stop the projectors! This was a warning. A warning. To average citizens. About smart sh*t in a Brad Pitt movie. Huh? This is a bad thing, apparently, according to the laymen.

Here’s a fact: people are stupid. I don’t mean people in general. I mean the collective sheeplike hive mind that is the nebulous concept of “people” is what is stupid. “What do they know?” is a phrase bandied about by all of us at one point in time. “They” is people, and if people are made to feel stupid, then they get what they deserve, and’ll probably miss out on cool sh*t and die angry.

Before I go off on another bilious tear, let me say that tempering thoughtfulness with intellectualism made Midnight In Paris a small gem…

Gil (Wilson) is a Hollywood hack and a budding novelist. When he and his fiancé Inez (McAdams) and her parents take a trip to the City of Lights, Inez and family are too caught up in the idea of Paris, its pretensions, for Gil’s tastes. He eventually gets restless with being inundated with too much Parisian culture. He goes for a stroll one evening, lost in the winding streets after too much wine when at midnight, he happens upon a ride in a classic Peugeot. Gil’s magically transported back in time to a swinging party hosted by none other than the Fitzgeralds, Zelda and F Scott to be precise, with lots of bathtub gin and a live performance by Cole Porter. Over the course of several evenings, Gil drinks with Hemingway (Stoll), gets writing advice from Gertrude Stein (Bates), and carouses with Picasso’s mistress, Adriana. Gil is rubbing elbows with artistic elite of 1920’s Paris, if only for a Cinderella moment. And happy as a pig in sh*t, more so than in his clumsy 21st Century life…

If this premise appeals to you, apparently it didn’t appeal to the masses. Well, some of the masses. I guess I’m one of the few that found it appealing; otherwise I wouldn’t have rented it. Woody Allen’s films have almost always been intellectual, even the dumber stuff like Bananas and Sleeper. Midnight In Paris is the only movie in his filmography that I know of that has been so overtly intellectual. At lease, appealing to the intellectuals out there.

Am I saying that I’m an intellectual? Hell to the yeah. The notion of conversing about writing and getting tight on absinthe with Papa Hemingway charges me up. Watching Gertrude Stein argue with Pablo Picasso about each other’s interpretations of a portrait? Bring it on. Having Dali want to do and abstract portrait of me? “The Temptation of St. Anthony” is my favorite painting.

Does all that bother you? All that name-dropping? It would bother me too if I were outside the circle that Allen tries to condense into an hour and thirty minutes. It’s easy to see why folks could get alienated. The whole film is virtually a holy host of 1920’s celebs, too many for the hoi polloi. Too many writers, too many artists, too many non-Internet (save Wikipedia) connects to catch up with the times.

Enough about the dividing lines. What brought this film together for any smart audience to appreciate?

For one, the opening montage is great. Dozens of scenes showing off everything you need to know about Paris. The winding streets, the cafes, the out of the way places. Here is the setting. Adjust to it for the next 90 minutes, yer gonna be walking it. Good news is you won’t sweat.

Owen Wilson is at his Owen Wilsoniest here. Charmingly awkward. Wilson always has this air of “I’m in the wrong place” in most of his films, and it works really well as he Billy Pilgrim’s it between 2010 and 1920. This awkwardness translates into childlike wonder when Gil goes back in time and hobnobs with the writers and artists he meets, especially when he starts crushing hard on Picasso’s dame, Adriana (played gamely by a lovely Cottiliard). Yet on the flipside, this is a more mature Wilson, not so quick to act goofy and clueless to grab a laugh. This is not a laugh-out-loud film, but using Wilson as a guide, you get snickers. Following his childlike enthusiasm for this newfound world, you have to laugh inspite of yourself. It’s hard to be cynical with a movie like this one.

It’s the 1920’s, right? That means jazz and gin and flappers. The costumes are great. Everyone is nattily dressed in the attire of the times. Sumptuous attention to details. The backdrops to Gil’s fantasy world are so inviting that even if you’re not a big deal reader or even writer, you’d like to dip your toes into a party where the Charleston rules and gins flows like icy water. And as always, Allen’s soundtrack is  tasteful and thoughtful as ever, too.

Notable acting is key. Head and shoulders over the cast is Corey Stoll as Earnest Hemingway. His script is tight, just like his prose. And he has this stare that is just so convincing. Allison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald is a hoot too, flapper incarnate and perpetually drunk and borderline psycho. Good stuff.

The whole film had a sophisticated Twilight Zone feel. Man hates present. Man visits past. Man wants to stay in past. The past in not where he belongs. The film questions the idea of a “Golden Age.” I’ve read somewhere that a Golden Age is when you were 12 years old. Despite the fact Gil is well over twelve when he takes his stroll into the Parisian version of the Zone, his juvenile enthusiasm is infectious.

Even if you’re not a self-proclaimed intellectual, you can appreciate what’s going on. This movie isn’t about who you rub elbows with, it’s about being comfortable with yourself. In your own shoes. Hell, there’s a message we all should hear once in a while. With or without the bathtub gin.

But hopefully with.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Get over yer pretensions and have a laugh (or more accurately a chuckle) with Wilson. As we travel afar with Owen, it brings to mind that old saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.”

Stray Observations…

  • “I’m working on a…Where am I?”
  • Hemingway: “Have you ever hunted?” Gil: “Only for bargains.”
  • The set pieces were amazing. I mean, I wasn’t extant in the ‘20’s, but it gave me the feeling of realism all the same. And I guess during America’s Prohibition years, Paris was the place to be.
  • I should learn French.
  • My uncle taught Owen Wilson at St. Mark’s. And his brother Luke. And Old 97’s singer Rhett Miller. Just sayin’.

Next Installment…

Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo form a wobbly alliance to hunt the Zodiac. Let’s hope they got enough crossword puzzles.