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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

To Rome With Love

Baldwin, Page star in Woody Allen's latest

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To Rome With Love is no Midnight in Paris, but then, Woody Allen set the bar so high last summer that it may be years before he touches it again. Decamping from the City of Light, the writer-director set up cameras in the Eternal City for his latest exploration of romantic and sexual conundrums. He draws fondly from the Roman scenery, starting with a sweeping panorama of the plaza fronted by the Victor Emmanuel II memorial and an introductory nod by one of the city's pith-helmeted policemen, directing traffic with white-gloved hands from a stone riser in the roundabout. “In 'theese' city, all is a story,” the cop says in stage-comedy English. And Allen proceeds to tell no fewer than four stories, none overlapping, all juggled with a master's touch in the editing room. To Rome With Love is heavily loaded but rolls along smoothly, with nary a pointless digression or wasted minute.

Allen is one of the film's stars, playing a ne'er-do-too-well opera director visiting his daughter (Alison Pill), who has fallen in love with a handsome, stylish young Communist lawyer during her storybook Roman holiday. But Allen has also molded other characters into neurotic, intellectual, gesticulating fractals of himself, especially Jesse Eisenberg's architecture student and the woman he falls for, the out-of-work actress (Ellen Page) gal pal of his girlfriend who moves into the couple's idyllic flat and commences to break hearts.

The most interesting storytelling device in To Rome With Love is the pairing of Eisenberg's young aspirant with Alec Baldwin, playing a commercially successful, aesthetically compromised architect hesitantly revisiting memories of his youth in Rome. He becomes Eisenberg's mentor; a bit like Bogart in Play it Again, Sam, he proffers advice to his protégé in earshot of other characters, who often seem oblivious to his presence.

Allen's distaste for the drift of contemporary society finds voice in the scenario starring Roberto Benigni as an ordinary salaryman in an office cubicle who unaccountably becomes a celebrity. Although he has little of interest to say and has done nothing extraordinary, his life turns into reality television, with the media filming him shaving, asking his opinion on the weather and putting his unremarkable life under a microscope. Benigni's hapless clerk finds himself at the center of banality magnified to unbearable dimensions.

One amusing scene tumbles gamely into another, with Allen reserving some of the funniest business for himself. Hearing his daughter's future father-in-law singing wonderfully in the shower, he stages an opera starring the future in-law performing arias from inside a smoky glass shower stall (with the water always running). “I miss work. I don't like being retired,” Allen's impresario sputters at one point—and goes on to compare retirement with death.

Allen was speaking from his own voice and is probably already at work on his next feature. Only death or crippling incapacity will separate him from camera and typewriter, and while the artistic level of his output has varied greatly during the past two decades, one can only respect his determination to make his own kind of movies in defiance of an industry that belongs more to bookkeepers than filmmakers.
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