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. 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.