Having already scored major critical victories in England (2005’s “Match Point” and 2010’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”), Spain (2008’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), and last year’s Academy Award winning (Best Original Screenplay) “Midnight in Paris” providing a whimsical fantasy set in the French capital, Woody Allen’s conquest of Europe continues with the multi-faceted love comedy “To Rome With Love.” While the Italians are currently celebrating their soccer/football success in reaching the Euro 2012 final (the film was released there back in April), Americans are now getting a sumptuous, stimulating treat courtesy of Allen’s particularly neurotic sense of humor.
Spread over four unrelated vignettes, the film breezes about like a frothy frappuccino, sliding between the tales of innocent newlyweds recently arrived in Rome (from Pordenone, home of one of the planet’s finest silent film festivals), their arrival in the big city tossed into disarray by a missing bride, a hooker, and several well known Italian film actors; a young American blonde who falls for a left-wing Italian attorney (and the parents that complicate their engagement); an American architect and his girlfriend in a tenuous relationship interrupted by a well-known architect (who offers amusing insights even after his physical self has apparently left the building) and her best friend (a flirty, narcissistic actress); as well as a bored/boring bureaucrat mysterious swept up in a confusing swirl of sudden unlooked-for fame, pressing paparazzi, and insanely silly media attention.
The stories don’t always play out in equal time, but they do play out in due rhythm. It’s not that they last the same amount of days, weeks, or whatever, but that the film’s tempo remains true to Allen’s storylines. Maybe it’s an Italian thing.
Begun and bookmarked by a talking traffic cop—”I see life in this city” he narrates in fractured English—then it’s off to the races. Lost-in-the-city New York art-finder Hayley (Alison Pill) gets more than directions from handsome passerby Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Their faster-than-light (remember my clock-breaking comments in the preceding paragraph) engagement finds her parents Jerry (Allen), a neurotic (doh!) retired opera director/record company executive and his smarter-than-he psychiatrist wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) meeting the husband-to-be’s family, including the undertaker father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato). Jerry’s offbeat professional suggestion (his past is his prologue, it seems) that Giancarlo’s operatic talent, heretofore only accessible when he is lathering in the shower, must be exploited despite nearly everyone’s objections.
Meanwhile Milly and Antonio (Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi), those out-of-town recently-marrieds, find that impressing his straight-laced aunt and uncles can be complicated by a lost cell phone and the seductive Anna (Penélope Cruz looking as gorgeous as ever), who picks the right room (504)/wrong client(DeBroca) to “entertain” Antonio at just the wrong time. As they parade as groom-bride, the real wife, lost in the city, befriends several big-time movie stars on a nearby set, where the womanizing Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese) can’t stop drooling after the breathtakingly simple Milly.
Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”), Greta Gerwig (“Lola Versus”), and Ellen “Juno” Page are newcomers to Allen territory. Talky, unsure architect Jack embraces Eisenberg’s off-kilter style, caught in between his earnestly too-truthful g.f. Sally (Gerwig), who assumes Jack will easily fall prey to the mankiller antics of her flirtatious friend Monica (Page), adrift waiting for her next big break. This segment works okay, but is greatly enhanced by Alec “30 Rock” Baldwin as John, a big-shot architect vacationing in Rome and visiting the neighborhood that inspired him 30 years earlier. Befriended when recognized by Jack, John’s trip never ends in this film, although he undoubtedly has left Rome for points elsewhere. John’s many confidential asides to Jack (Monica hears some of them as well) provide warnings about the fleeting flirtations that take them around town, including the Coliseum, and allow the viewer to wonder why Rome isn’t their next vacation destination.
And Roberto Benigni, the first actor ever to win a Best Actor Oscar in a non-English-speaking role in “Life Is Beautiful” (1997), and remembered by many for his seat-climbing antics at that awards ceremony, returns to his first live action role in seven years. His Leopoldo is a Kafkaesque creation, bemused by instant celebrity and whisked from one interview to the next with mundane questions about what he ate for breakfast or whether he prefers boxers or briefs. He (and we) never get the reason for his popularity (nor should you care), but I suspect it depended on which way the wind was blowing. Amusing piece, yes, but it might have felt better as a separate short.
“To Rome With Love” is a triumphant examination of life and love’s many splendors, spilt out on the streets on Rome at their wickedly absurd and poignantly profound moments. Allen’s dialogue is near brilliant and the jokes and situations quite clever. Darius Khnodji, who photographed “Midnight in Paris,” reveals that he can bring out the best views of any location. The score is sprinkled with Italian favorites, whether sung in or out the shower. This soaped-up loofah isa gooda for a lotsa laughas.
Grazie, Woody, Grazie!