Woody Allen is 76, but he is far from being an old man. Even with its flaws, his latest picture, “To Rome with Love,” serves as evidence of a creative vitality usually associated with a new artist. So far, in the United States and Europe, many film critics have dismissed this as inferior to his previous European work, “Midnight in Paris”, which in turn, I thought was inferior – though not markedly — to “Vicky Christina Barcelona”. But that is beside the point– usually even a Woody Allen movie of lessor rank is guaranteed to provide more pleasure, not to mention aesthetic edification, than most of what is available in any month at your local theater.
To begin with, while his much younger colleagues and rivals struggle and strain to develop and offer screenplays that connect with their audience, Woody Allen does so with fluid ease by being funny – as in guffaws – in a manner that transcends categories such as “high comedy” or “low comedy”. His jokes don’t play to the elitist vanity of an increasingly shrinking literate audience, nor the infantilism of the mostly male-adolescent dominated demographic.
Of course, deep laughter is the most exhilirating effect a movie can provide, yet also the most difficult to attain, and is largely dependent not so much on effort, but talent, which Woody Allen has in abundance.
However, the critics of this film are not entirely without justification. This is a mult-narrative work which, in total, seems to lack any coherence or point. There are reports that after his successes with movies made in London, Barcelona, and Paris – which benefited the tourism industry of the latter two – Woody Allen received an offer, with money, to make a film in Rome, with all the benefits of lodging and restaurants included.
So who could blame him? However, the result is a screenplay that feels like it was written to justify the use of the spectacular beauty of Rome’s architecture along with the wealth of talented actors in Italy, rather than out of deep personal expression. There are four seperate stories, all of them comic, and all touch upon the theme of culture and popularity – a recurringly familiar subject in Allen’s ouvre, as evidenced in such previous works as “Manhattan”, “Stardust Memories”, “Zelig”, “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Celebrity”. Yet in this case, without any emotional impact.
Nor is there any clear point, other than what Allen states at the conclusion, through a mouthpiece character, that between anonymity and celebrity, celebrity is better. This, in turn, is consistent with other pessmistic notions previously expressed by Allen such as in “Match Point”, is is better to be fortunate than good, or in “Stardust Memories”, that whether or not one finds love is dependent on fate.
If Woody Allen didn’t have so much talent as a writer, especially with dialogue and original concepts, such pessimism would make his movies downright unwatchable. However, he does have an exceptional talent and a wild, comic creativity. For example, in one of the stories, Allen plays an American who travels to Rome to meet his future Italian in-laws His discovers that the father of his future son-in-law, though he is not a professional singer, has a magnificent operatic voice – but only in the shower. Hence, he is a complete bust during a professional audition. The solution? A production of “Pagliacci” in with a shower installed on the stage.
In one of the other stories, noted Italian comic, Roberto Begnini, portrays an unexceptional member of Italy’s white-collar bourgeoisie who suddenly becomes supremely popular for no reason whatsoever, and is worshipped over the most banal details of his life.
The most substantial story explores the temptation a young American architect experiences when his girlfriend allows her best friend, a very neurotic young actress (superbly portrayed by Ellen Page) to stay with the couple. Alec Baldwin is on hand in the role of a Greek chorus, and the resolution of the story is funny, brilliant, and disturbing.
And despite its limitations, with the help of the great cinematographer, Darius Khondji, who shot most ot the exteriors at early twilight,“To Rome with love”, is visually magnificent, a testament to Allen’s love for the eternal city.