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Sunday, August 26, 2012

To Rome With Love

Woody Allen's latest is done no favours by coming out straight after his most successful film, Midnight In Paris but it's still way, way better than some of the reviews would have you believe.

To Rome with Love is one of Woody Allen's fluffiest films - but that certainly doesn't mean it's one of his worst. Throughout his career, Woody has balanced his more serious (if sometimes seriously funny) major works with lighter, more insubstantial offerings. Deciding which is which is something of a challenge, of course. We can all agree, surely, to classify Crimes and Misdemeanors and Annie Hall as major works and A Midnight Sex Comedy and Scoop as minor detours but where does that leave brilliant but frothy fare like The Purple Rose of Cairo, Midnight In Paris and, lets not forget, his early funny ones?

Put simply: some Woody Allen movies are good, some are less so but it has surprisingly little to do with how "important" or "major" said films are. Take Melinda and Melinda on one hand and Bananas on the other. The former reads as a "serious artistic statement", while the latter seems to be little more than a lark for its director, but I assume I don't have to say which of the two is better?

I mention all this, not just to show how many Woody films I've seen or, for that matter, how many the man has made, but to put To Rome With Love into perspective into the Great Man's long and varied career. Judge To Rome With Love by all means, but judge it for what it is, not for what it's not. Not only is To Rome With Love a light comedy, but it's a light comedy that sees its director kicking back and simply having a bit of fun with four different story ideas, making it his most unassuming film in years.

With this in mind, rather than To Rome With Love being a letdown after the frankly sublime Midnight In Paris, it can be seen for what it really is: top-drawer "lesser" Woody Allen. It's constantly funny, likable and effortlessly entertaining with a fantastic cast, a witty script and a sly irreverence that allows it to subtly tackle some interesting ideas on the side without hitting the audience over the head with them.

Effectively a one-man New York Stories or Paris, Je T'aime, To Rome With Love is made up of four short stories playing out at the same time, whose only connective tissue is that they're all set in Rome. Fortunately, there is no pathetic Valentines Day-esque attempt to tie them all together at the end so each of them live and die by their own merits. Not for nothing, it's also to Woody's great credit that, though some of the stories are stronger than others, there isn't a bad one in the bunch.

Arguably the weakest of the four is a farce involving a newly married young couple who land up spending the first day of their honeymoon apart as she gets lost in the vast city of Rome before hooking up with a famous Italian actor and he gets involved in a case of mistaken identity as he is forced to pass off a glamorous prostitute as his new wife. It's every bit as flimsy as it sounds but Penelope Cruz once again turns in a great performance for a Woody Allen film and, though it will probably be the first of the stories you forget, it's still perfectly amusing for what it is.

Far more effective is when Woody turns his focus from farce and concentrates instead on what was once his stock in trade: surrealist comedy with killer one-liners. The story this time seems to be about another young couple, again going to Rome to meet the family but it quickly becomes far stranger and far funnier when their story is quickly usurped by their respective fathers. For the first time in years, Woody has stepped once again in front of the camera as a retired opera director who finds in his daughter's new father-in-law, a brilliant talent whose only weakness is that he's only any good when singing in the shower. The solution to his conundrum is impressively batty but the real source of the many, many laughs in this segment is Woody himself who, in typically nebbishy form, clearly returned to acting just to steal all the best lines in his own film.

From farce to silly pseudo-surrealism to social satire, the third of these stories is probably the most surprising. It's still hard to believe that a guy as out of step with flavour-of-the-month pop-culture should take this much notice of the seemingly unstoppable trend of "the cult of celebrity" (ya know, people famous for being famous) and yet here it is, front and centre in Woody's latest effort. He examines this idea rather cleverly as his casts Roberto Bernini as an everyday, nine-to-fiver who suddenly finds himself the most famous person in Rome for no apparent reason whatsoever. It's clever, it's sly and it's oddly reminiscent of Bananas - and believe me, I don't say that lightly.

Lastly, and most typical of Woody's recent output, is the story that is most developed, despite having a storytelling device that is left open to interpretation. Alec Baldwin plays a middle aged architect who, while walking through the streets of his university days, bumps into a young architect (Jesse Eisenberg) and soon becomes a life-adviser to the young man as he tries to navigate tricky romantic waters. Eisenberg and Ellen Page have exactly the kind of quick talking quippiness that makes it hard to believe that they haven't been in a Woody Allen film before but they're perfect here and it's hard to complain about anything that Baldwin does these days. This section is slightly Play-It-Again-Sam-lite but it has great comedic performances from its players, some decent lines and more heart than the rest of the film put together.      

To Rome With Love simply doesn't deserve its rotten reputation and, though a bit forgettable, it's pretty definitely one of Woody's better whimsical films and is still better than most of the stuff out there right now.

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