To Rome with Love

 

Directed by Woody Allen. Starring Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Alison Pill, Flavio Parenti, Ornella Muti 12A cert, general release, 111 min

Woody Allen takes his enjoyable schtick to Italy, writes DONALD CLARKE

WHEN WOODY Allen unveiled his latest comic travelogue to the good people of Rome, there was a great deal of thumbnail-biting and violent gesticulation.

That’s fair enough. Heaven alone knows what the great man would inflict upon us if he ever touched down in Ireland. Comic mishaps by the Blarney Stone? Drunken adventures in Temple Bar? Disturbing appearances by tiny shoemakers? The manufacturers of souvenir tea towels are less inclined to indulge in romantic stereotyping (like suggesting Italians are forever biting their thumbs or gesticulating violently).

Allen’s tendency towards picture-postcard imagery seemed less troubling in Midnight in Paris because that film was, to an extent, actually about the business of idealising foreign places and far off times. To Rome with Love makes no such excuses. Amateur opera singers pop up in gorgeously run- down family homes. Scenes take place in the vicinity of prominent Roman ruins. At one point, the camera becomes so overpowered by devotion that it swings through a full 360-degree swoon.

So, Romans could be forgiven for finding the whole thing a little nauseating. Those less acquainted with the eternal city are offered an opportunity to confirm that, more than half a century into his career, Allen can still devise divine jokes and construct gorgeous comic characters.

It hardly needs to be said that this portmanteau picture is not up to the standard of Woody’s classics from the 1970s and 1980s. But you would need a heart of anthracite (or an address in Lazio) to sit through To Rome With Love without emitting a snigger.

Making a welcome return to acting, Allen plays a director of avant-garde opera, married to the preternaturally long-suffering Judy Davis, who has come to the city to meet his daughter and her politically radical fiancé. In the course of their trip, Allen discovers that the boy’s father has a beautiful singing voice and he sets out to launch the chap’s professional career.

Elsewhere, Roberto Begnini turns up as an ordinary bloke who unaccountably awakes to find himself famous. Penélope Cruz plays a prostitute forced to pose as a newlywed’s missing wife. Jess Eisenberg (a perfect Allen stand-in) is an architecture student who becomes guiltily tempted when his girlfriend’s pretentious pal (Ellen Page) comes to stay.

The film exemplifies all that is great and all that is problematic about the lighter version of Woody Allen. In recent years the director has occasionally flung out scripts that seemed slightly incomplete.

The Eisenberg episode is mostly a success, but its central conceit never quite makes sense. Alec Baldwin, a middle-aged architect, becomes Jesse’s near-supernatural advisor, but we are left to wonder whether the younger character is the older man as he appeared 30 years earlier. That seems, at times, to be the case. But they don’t share a name. The uncertain flavour doesn’t fatally damage an amusing story, but it remains a nagging concern throughout.

The Begnini section is – surprisingly, given how annoying that actor can be – an unqualified success. Then again, there’s almost nothing to it. So, it’s hard to imagine how Allen could have screwed up.

The Cruz story again highlights a question that has long bugged Allenologists: why does a writer capable of producing so many strong, funny female characters (such as Judy Davis’s here) keep returning to the bitter shrew and the tart with a heart? Still, it’s hard to retain any animus when Allen sets to directing himself.

Since Richard Nixon was president, the funniest thing in any Woody Allen film starring Woody Allen has been Woody Allen acting like a chicken. He got the act from Bob Hope, but it’s still a hoot. When, threatened with a knife, he drags Davis forward and weakly squeaks “interpose yourself”, whole decades seem to slip away. The old man has still got it.

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