Combustible Celluloid
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With: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Antonio Albanese, Fabio Armiliato, Alessandra Mastronardi, Ornella Muti, Flavio Parenti, Alison Pill, Riccardo Scamarcio, Alessandro Tiberi
Written by: Woody Allen
Directed by: Woody Allen
MPAA Rating: R for some sexual references
Running Time: 112
Date: 04/20/2012

To Rome with Love (2012)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Italian Allen

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Woody Allen's last movie, Midnight in Paris, went on to become the highest-grossing hit of his career. I'm sure this baffled no one more than Allen himself, and though many may accuse him of trying to repeat the formula with To Rome with Love, I suspect that that's not the case. For one thing, I doubt Allen would know how to begin to do such a thing, and for another, To Rome with Love was probably halfway to preproduction by the time the Midnight in Paris money started rolling in.

Yet the two films are similar in that they feature a tourist's love for a beautiful city, as well as some tender, affectionate -- and ridiculous -- characters. Like its predecessor, it also has a few non-realistic (supernatural?) sequences. Inevitably, people will be disappointed after comparing the two, but despite a few quibbles, To Rome with Love still has many wonderful moments and a nice, sustained humor throughout.

The movie begins with a silly Roman traffic cop, the character who, from his perch, "sees all" and knows all the good stories. Allen himself stars in one of them -- his first acting role since Scoop (2006) -- playing a retired record company man, Jerry. He and his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) travel to Rome to meet their daughter, Hayley (Alison Pill), who has fallen for a local man, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Jerry and Michelangelo immediately clash over politics, but Jerry becomes entranced by the operatic voice of Michelangelo's father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), whom Jerry overhears singing in the shower.

In another story, an uptight Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) -- who buttons his top button -- has arrived from his small town with his new wife Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi). He hopes to impress his big city aunts and uncles and perhaps a land a good job. But unexpectedly, while Milly is lost, a call girl, Anna (Penelope Cruz), shows up in his room. So of course, she is forced to pretend to be his wife for the afternoon. Meanwhile, Milly meets a famous movie star, Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese), and falls for his sleazy charms.

The third story has an architectural student, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), living happily with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). That is, until Sally's best friend Monica (Ellen Page) shows up and begins to stir Jack's feelings. Oddly, in this sequence, Jack meets a famous architect, John (Alec Baldwin), and invites him back to their place for coffee. After that, John sort of sticks around, like a Greek chorus, sometimes giving Jack advice, and sometimes speaking to other characters, but apparently unseen by most characters at all times. Allen does not establish any rules for this character, and it's a bit off-putting, but it turns out that Baldwin has some of the funniest lines, so we just go with it.

The fourth story has another supernatural element. Ordinary working schlub Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) suddenly becomes famous for no reason. He is invited on talk shows and asked about his breakfast and shaving habits. Movie starlets begin throwing themselves at him, and he gets the best tables at restaurants. But of course, there's trouble in paradise.

I had very few problems with the non-realistic elements in the movie, even the ones that were not explained. Perhaps the thing that bugged me the most is that three of the stories take place over the course of several days, or even weeks, while the "realistic" one, the Antonio/Milly/Anna story, takes place in one afternoon. Moving back and forth among the stories, these time jumps were a bit displacing. But, again, they are forgivable once the rhythms settle in.

Allen's humor is constant throughout, with at least a dozen big laughs, even though some of his rhythms are familiar. One visual joke, a man singing opera in a shower on stage, recalled Virgil Starkwell playing cello (which requires a chair) in a marching band in Take the Money and Run, though in this movie, Allen plays out the joke again and again, with new variations each time. Some may complain that the joke goes on too long, but others may appreciate its variety.

But best of all, like Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love finds Allen in a new era of peace and acceptance, it seems. The movie is light and warm and happy and hopeful, even if it tries to impart a few little life lessons (actresses are not to be trusted, famous people have problems, too, etc.). It's not a breakthrough or a masterpiece, but it's certainly not bad either. Like some of the best summer movies, it feels like a relaxing vacation.

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