To Rome with Love – Woody Allen and the whistle-stop tour does Italy

Is it my imagination, or has Woody Allen finally grown up? Vicky Christina Barcelona teeterd on the past and the future for him, Midnight in Paris was a refreshing look at a great director, not back in form, but using his wit and wisdom to create something fresh, and now with To Rome with Love we have a rather progressive take on love – something Woody Allen has needed for a long time.

It is still a film obsessed with infidelity (wasn’t it LOVELY that Midnight in Paris didn’t go there?  I mean it almost did WA can’t help himself, but it was so lovely to see people work themselves out before they commit) which we all know us Allen’s problem, not ours, but it’s multiple story lines have some nice twists on the subject. Particularly cute was the Jessie Eisenberg / Ellen Page mash-up. These are two actors who do not appeal to me at all (I find them both sexually dull and lacking in charisma)  but when you put Alex Baldwin between them playing his contempo sleazy dude thing, you get a fantastic take on reality versus fantasy in the male realm of sexual attraction. It was refreshing to see Allen poke fun at male fantasy – something it has taken him so very very long to wake up to.

However the stand out of the film is the Roberto Benigni story – the famous for being famous phenomena that plagues our day. Romans seem to be so good at getting passionate about the most mundane things, and Allen combines this idea with our modern one of fascination with anyone who is on the cover of a woman’s magazine or spent a week in a Big Brother House. Allen used Owen Wilson’s face brilliantly in Midnight in Paris and probably the only person who can “do” that stupid and stunned look better is Benigni. He is hysterical in the part, if perhaps a little unconvincing when fame takes him over. The initial scenes of him being pursued by a witless press are so funny I cried laughing.

All Woody Allen’s “Europe” films have one thing in common – the Americanized Westerners fascination with the cultural depth and altered states of Europe. I was an eager-eyed eighteen year old who did the six months in Europe thing.  One expects passionate love-affairs with black-eyed Europeans who teach you a thing or two about love that you take home with you. You expect to be hit with a touch of the genius stick from all them museums and such and you expect to taste the foreign in a safe realm where the only real difference you have to contend with is English as a second language and giant slabs of cheese for breakfast.  Each country is expected to live up to its stereotype and none more than the unrelenting senseless passion of Italy. Allen plays strongly to this ethic, with a surreal farce of a film with his customary witty dialogue and luscious comedy of errors seemingly right at home in the middle of Rome.

The self referential quirk is well placed here. Allen says to the brilliant Judy Davis, “If you are channelling Freud, tell him I want my money back,” among other mentions of failed psychoanalysis and untrustworthiness in love. It is something Allen never fails to do well, poke fun at himself, and it does make us love him despite all the “stuff”.  Judy Davis, an actor I adore, is a a little flat here as is Penelope Cruz – both these women have shone under Allen’s direction in the past.  Perhaps its a little rushed. Judy Davis comes across as a bit of a nag and Penelope Cruz as a bit of a sleaze, something neither woman was ever born to play. But then Allen does have a history of persecuting his women on film. Maybe he’s grown tired of these two? There is also a bit of a left-of-centre nod to the crazy avant-garde in art that is fun.

Of the three films, this is the least luminous, but I did have a good time.