Friday, August 31, 2012

'Rome' a mixed bag off Woody Allen stories

Woody Allen continues his European film tour, which has included stops in London, Barcelona and Paris, with "To Rome With Love," a collection of stories set in Italy's capital that hits more often than it misses.

Coming off of the delightful "Midnight in Paris," one of Allen's best films in this or any other decade, "To Rome With Love" is a slight disappointment. For more than 40 years, Woody Allen's annual new film has been as reliable as the changing seasons. With that level of production, not every film can be great. On balance though, his latest entertains.

"To Rome With Love" weaves together four different stories. In story one, a middle aged architect (Alec Baldwin) visits Rome for the first time since his youth and runs into a younger version of himself (Jesse Eisenberg) who is considering cheating on his sweet girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) with her best friend (Ellen Page), a sexually charged faux-intellectual actress. Baldwin freely, and inexplicably, pops in and out of this trio's life. The best interpretation of this is that Baldwin is reliving and advising his memories.

This is the best and funniest of the four plots. Baldwin is very funny as he sarcastically advises his younger, more foolish self. Eisenberg effectively plays a variation on Allen's nebbish neurotic. He gets laughs just with his facial expressions as he listens to the outlandish things that come out of Page's mouth. As Page has proved in the past, she can deliver fast-paced dialogue better than just about anyone in her generation. Only Gerwig seems shortchanged in this story arc.

In story two, a perfectly average Italian man (Roberto Benigni) becomes a celebrity for no reason at all. He is hounded by the press and paparazzi who want to know everything about him from what he had for breakfast to whether he thinks God exists. Live footage of him shaving is a major scoop. This plot is an amusing commentary on our ever increasing obsession with celebrity and how, thanks to reality TV, anyone can become a false idol. The ultimate theme of this plot reveals Allen's thoughts on his own celebrity.

The third story features Allen's first on screen appearance since 2006's "Scoop." Allen is a retired opera director who visits Rome with his wife (Allen regular Judy Davis) to visit their daughter (Alison Pill) who is engaged to marry an Italian (Flavio Parenti). It turns out the father (Fabio Armiliato) of Pill's fiance has the ability to beautifully sing opera. The problem is he can only sing in the shower.

This is a one-joke story, but at the very least it is a very funny joke, with a nice, and not overly heavy-handed, message that isn't too late to follow a dream.

In the fourth, and weakest, story, a recently wed couple (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) arrives in Rome only to lose track of each other. Through a misunderstanding, a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) must pose as the new bride while meeting high-profile family members. While this is happening, the real bride is off contemplating an affair with a movie star.

Whenever Allen cuts to this plot line the film comes to a halt. With its reliance on dumb characters, lame slapstick and tired one-liners, this story is terribly unfunny. The infidelities perpetrated by the couple also leave behind a nasty after taste. The dubious theme seems to be that a little adultery is good for a marriage.

There's actually a lot of adultery in the film, but, in the other stories, it is used to explore a larger theme. This doesn't exactly excuse the behavior, but it gives it a purpose.

This is decent Allen, but I'll take that over most of the films that come out on any given week. At 76, Allen still seems sharp and spry and with no indication of slowing down. For Allen it isn't so much quantity over quality, but that he simply needs to keep working. It would seem that filmmaking is like breathing for Allen and he'll continue to make films until his final breath.

To paraphrase a line from "Annie Hall," Allen's film career is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies. More power to him.

"To Rome With Love" is playing at the Majestic Theater at The Conway Cafe in Conway Village.

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