Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

On Woody Allen in Rome

Ah, Woody Allen. Everybody has an opinion about the great man. Three or four malcontents still argue that he was only ever any good when he was making “the early funny ones“. These maniacs date his decline to the release …

Wed, Apr 4, 2012, 22:24

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Ah, Woody Allen. Everybody has an opinion about the great man. Three or four malcontents still argue that he was only ever any good when he was making “the early funny ones“. These maniacs date his decline to the release of Annie Hall. That is to say they believe that the last time Allen was worth watching was when Jimmy Carter was president and Smokie were still in the charts. More sober analysts reckon he began slipping at some point in the 1990s. Bullets Over Broadway was good, but, after that, unfunny hell took over. A few nutters claim that he was never amusing at all.

I remain a fairly unshakable enthusiast. Yes, there have, in recent years, been atrocities such as Cassandra’s Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. But there have been funny oddities such as Whatever Works, overlooked gems such as Anything Else and half-decent films such as Small Time Crooks. If this year’s Woody doesn’t suit you then hang around for another 12 months. He continues to churn them out with same regularity that Cadbury’s bring to their Creme Eggs.

Midnight in Paris was an odd one. I was lucky enough to see the film at its premiere in Cannes. “Well, this isn’t bad,” I thought to myself. “It registers as decent — if unspectacular — late Allen. It’s a little better than the unfairly trashed (indeed, unreleased in these territories) Scoop. But it’s not as funny as Anything Else.” You know what happened next. The picture became his most successful ever and secured an Oscar nomination for best picture (something it might have managed even if there were still only five nods).

The picture was, of course, the latest of his adventures in Europe. Here we run up against an interesting anomaly in the world of criticism. The “foreign” pictures tend to get much better reviews in the United States than they receive on this side of the Atlantic. The absurdly sunny depictions of European capitals — most conspicuously London — jar with us, but continue to win over those in the US. Here’s a question that you won’t be bothered to answer: Has any film ever received such diverging reviews in the US and Europe as those handed out to Match Point? It got the living tar kicked out of it in the UK and Ireland, but was praised as a kind of masterpiece in the New World. I recently heard Barry Norman on the radio describing it as the worst ever Woody Allen film.

Anyway, the pattern was broken somewhat by Midnight in Paris. We weren’t quite so keen on it. But it got pretty good reviews everywhere. Now, we move onto Italy for the film that was first titled The Bop Decameron, then Nero Fiddled and now To Rome With Love.

We have a trailer. First things first. It is a delight to welcome Allen back as an actor. Even in his worst films, the Woodster raises a laugh. I chuckled out loud at the euro joke in the first few seconds of this promo. The fearsome Judy Davis has fared well in previous Allen projects and looks to offer a good foil to Mr Konigsberg in the new piece. If you object to Woody’s habit of employing younger actors to play versions of himself then you probably gave up on the career years ago. (Kenneth Branagh had a go in the fitful Celebrity. John Cusack played the part in Bullets Over Broadway. Owen Wilson was on hand with the “ums” and “ahs” in Midnight in Paris.) If, however, you’ve got used to the idea then you’ll surely agree that Jesse Eisenberg fits the bill quite nicely. I’ll buy that.

The most worrying part of the trailer comes with the arrival of the guttural Penelope Cruz. No, no. no. He’s not back with the dubious trope of attaching a coarse, saucy sex worker to an erudite embarrassed intellectual. The joke at 1′ 38″ is among the worst he has ever written. I worry about that. I also worry slightly about experiencing another grossly romaticised version of a European city. That worked in Midnight in Paris because the film was, to some extent, about the notion of idealising cherished places and periods.

Anyway, on balance, I retain my optimism about Woody Allen. The film may very well turn up at Cannes in May. But, surely, it would make more sense to postpone the June release and premiere it at Venice. That’s in Italy. Isn’t it?