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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: To Rome With Love



TO ROME WITH LOVE (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Woody Allen, 2012


Woody Allen puts himself back on the screen in To Rome With Love — playing an old fool  — and I think the part has possibilities. Allen’s character, which he plays to addled perfection,  is Jerry, a retired, right wing, malcontent opera director-producer married to a Phyllis (Judy Davis) and traveling to Rome for the wedding of their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill). Jerry, kvetching away, discovers that Hayley’s fiancé Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) is very Euro-left wing and that his daughter’s prospective father-in-law, undertaker  Giancarlo, is a brilliant amateur opera singer (played by the brilliant professional opera singer Fabio Armiliato) and that he sings brilliantly, but only when he’s in the shower. So…

Thinking about that premise, I laughed more than I did at the last three or four alleged Hollywood romantic comedies I’ve seen — several of which even got good reviews, or at any event, better than a lot the reviews for To Rome With Love. It deserved much better. And Allen had three other promising comic premises for his new movie, hamd,ade for three other nifty but Allenless casts.

Coming right after Midnight in Paris, the biggest commercial hit of Allen’s career — and an unusual (for him these days) critical hit as well — To Rome With Love tries to catch some of the same magic, milk the same Euro-delight. For me, it does. Like Midnight in Paris, it‘s a combination travelogue and comic romantic fantasy satire — except that, in this case,  Allen has concocted four  funny episodes, instead of concentrating on just one.

It‘s somewhat like the Italian all-star anthology films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, omnibus movies like Yesterday Today and Tomorrow (with three segments by director Vittorio De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, all starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni ) and Boccaccio ’70 (four episodes directed by De Sica, Fellini, Visconti and Mario Monicelli, all with different casts).

But instead of showing the separate episodes one after the other, Allen has interwoven them like a Robert Altman ensemble piece — causing complaints from a few critics, since one of those interwoven episodes lasts only a day, and some of them (like the Story of Jerry and the Opera Singer) stretch across several months, at least.

My attitude is: So what.  Frankly, if you’re going to spin a yarn about an Italian mortician turned opera singer who gets up on the stage of Rome’s Teatro Argentina, and sings “Pagliacci” in a portable shower, I think all questions about the proper sequencing of events are a little moot. I can remember a time when, for doing exactly the same thing, Woody would have been hailed for his impudently Godardian chronological illogic. Anyway, they’re his vignettes, and, as far as I’m concerned, he can do whatever he wants with them, as long as he makes us laugh, and as long as the movie ends on time, and we can all get home for a Midnight (in Paris) snack.

The movie, for me, works just fine. Sometimes the jokes aren’t too funny, but most of them are, and at least the show has a little variety. It isn’t the same old 2000s’ well-upholstered hunk-meets-hot-doll rommie-commie, or a modern indie Manhattan romantic comedy with angst (the kind Allen used to do, better). The other three episodes — one more in English, two others in Italian — offer a ménage a trois (or quatre, or cinq, or whatever) of similar comedic hanky-panky.

In one of them, the funniest — Alec Baldwin plays (very amusingly) a famous, brilliant architect named John, who runs across a young talented but unknown architect named Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who is a big fan of John’s (he likes his old buildings, the funny ones) and who may also be his younger self. Just like Jerry Lacy’s “Spirit of Humphrey Bogart” in Play It Again, Sam, John, who seems invisible to everyone but Jack,  keeps hanging around offering sardonic and rude advice  about how to conduct his love life — as Jack shuttles irresponsibly around Rome between nice girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and Sally’s even more irresponsible love-me-I’m-neurotic best friend, actress Monica (Ellen Page).

In the third episode, a little nobody named Leopoldo (played by Roberto Benigni), suddenly becomes  a big somebody: a media darling and a paparazzi magnet, pursued and harassed and photographed and interviewed  everywhere, for no special reason beyond the fact that the media world has decided to treat him like a celebrity. (He’s “famous for being famous,“ according to one character.) This brief  fable, notable for its brevity and its fable-like qualities — and for the performance of Benigni, who manages to play the entire film without running across theatre  seats, or getting any advice from Alec Baldwin — shows us Allen at his most profound.

One watches, appalled, the Kafkaesque flood of media madness engulfing us all in this tragic morality play disguised as a seeming comic piffle. And the moral of Allen’s dark, mad story is: Even if you’re Roberto Benigni playing a nobody, the paparazzi of Rome won’t leave you alone. Hmmm. No, I guess the moral is: Celebrity is the opiate of the beautiful people, and paparazzi are the opiate of celebrity.  No! No! It’s this…Roberto Benigni is not a nobody, but  everybody’s somebody’s fool — including Alec Baldwin. No, that’s no good either. Let me see: Maybe it’s that lots of stupid people, especially in the U. S. Congress, are famous just because somebody pointed a  camera and a microphone at them, and asked them a stupid question.  Close, but let’s not get political. Maybe the moral is that: There’s no place like Rome. Uh well, sorry.

How about this: Even if Roberto Benigni lived in Manhattan, he wouldn’t get treated like Woody Allen, though they’re both genuine celebrities, unless Alec Baldwin were at the same movie premiere — with Penelope Cruz on his arm. Yeah. Dark. Deep. (For further research on this subject, see Celebrity (1998), written and directed by, but not starring, Woody Allen — nor Roberto Benigni.)

Speaking of Penelope Cruz, the last time she went out with Woody, in 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she came home with an Oscar — and here, recalling Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite,  he seems determined to create a new movie role-type for Cruz as everybody’s favorite fantasy movie hooker. In the last episode, the most Italian-vignettish of them all, Cruz plays  drop-dead gorgeous lady-of-the-evening Anna, here working in the afternoon: a superbabe in a skintight red minidress who somehow gets her dance card mixed up and winds up in the posh Roman apartment of a crushingly naïve honeymooner from the provinces, Antonio (Alessandro  Tiberi) — at the same time Antonio’s  sweet beautiful little wife Milly (Alessandra Mostranardi)  gets lost in Rome, and winds up in the arms of hot-blooded movie matinee idol Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese, seething), as well as in part of the plot of Fellini‘s classic The White Sheik.

Meanwhile, when his relatives show up, none of whom have seen Milly, Antonio tries to pretend that Anna is his wife, and she tries to pretend that she’s not everybody’s favorite fantasy hooker — despite the fact that a lot of the bigwigs they bump into include a lot of regulars on her prime client list. And there’s also a randy hotel burglar running around. This is what they call commedia dell ‘arte, or French bedroom farce, or maybe commedia all‘italia. But all I can say is: It made me laugh. (So did The White Sheik.) And I don’t know if this movie will give Cruz a new movie-type, but she should definitely hang on to that red minidress.

Contrary to a few carpers,  the four episodes do tie together and they share a common theme. (So does The White Sheik.)  They’re about the perilous consequence of wish fulfillment, or of answered prayers, spoken or unspoken. The four mini-movies are all done in Allen’s usual dryly classical, deadpan elegant long-take style, shot by Darius Khondji, filled with the kind of risp, witty, on-the-nose and super-bright dialogue few other contemporary movie romantic comedies, or rommo-commos, or whatever they are, even try for. The cast is the tops, especially Baldwin, Cruz, Armiliato, Benigni — and Allen.

Now Allen should start casting himself regularly again. You can‘t always count on an Owen Wilson to find the rhythm — and Allen can back up the leads, and play an old fool like nobody‘s business. Nobody says a Woody Allen line quite like Woody Allen. An example here: “Don’t psycho-analyze me. Many have tried. All have failed.” Bravo. Bravissimo. Listen. when you look at a naked tenor soaping himself down and singing “Pagliacci” in a portable shower at the Teatro Argentina, you either laugh or you don’t.  I laughed.



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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon