Friday 14 September 2012

"To Rome With Love" (Moviemail 14/09/12)

Anyone hoping Woody Allen would sustain the winning form he hit upon with last year’s Midnight in Paris might do well to dial down their expectations going into To Rome With Love. This latest, one of Allen’s occasional short-story compilations, tells four tales set in the Eternal City, and settles for a 50-50 hit-to-miss ratio, where Midnight got up to 60-40. It’s one for the fans, who’ll be able and keen to spot the themes its creator is turning over and, in some instances, outright restating; we’re firmly in Allen’s roadshow phase, where each film performs a version of the director’s greatest hits by way of an opening-night gala for international film festivals.

Half of Rome’s strands drift from the memory even as they’re playing out. Roberto Benigni as a nondescript company man who suddenly and inexplicably finds himself subject to the absurd scrutiny that comes with fame is a reworking of Deconstructing Harry/Celebrity-era riffs that scarcely develops beyond idle fantasy. Still, it registers rather more than the farce involving separated newlyweds, the wife lost to the city’s streets, the husband offered lessons in love from a local working girl (Penelope Cruz, addending subtitles to Mira Sorvino’s character from Mighty Aphrodite).

Allen himself makes a welcome screen return as the conservative father of a young woman (Alison Pill) who’s fallen for an idealistic union rep: it’s the objectionable business involving Rachel McAdams’ parents in Midnight in Paris approached from a new and broader-minded perspective, with the great Judy Davis as Allen’s wife and far better jokes. (Not least one of the funniest slow-burn pay-offs of Allen’s late period, as his retired opera director realises his Italian opposite number sings like Pavarotti, but only in the shower.)

The most completely realised of the stories has architect Alec Baldwin see something of his younger self in naïf Jesse Eisenberg and – like a Jiminy Cricket with superior hair – begin life-coaching the boy as he’s tempted away from girlfriend Greta Gerwig by the latter’s flaky actress pal Ellen Page. Allen is getting at something here about the benefits of hindsight and experience, and though he squanders Gerwig, he affords Page a memorable neurotic episode as she contemplates the sexual possibilities of her upcoming project. (The usual caveats about late Woody and his female characters apply.)

That these latter strands require no subtitles, and could be redrafted to play out anywhere in the world, is the biggest giveaway the new film is even less engaged with Rome than its predecessor was with Paris, but it’s clear some lessons are being taken from these wilderness years, particularly about casting: Pill’s thousand-kilowatt smile and Eisenberg’s nervy shrugs lend a certain pep to the middle-to-bottom drawer material. Another minor work, then, which makes the 112-minute running time something of a liability as its jokes and other pleasures are driven into the ground – but those clutching to these thin Woody straws might be reassured there are still jokes and other pleasures to be driven there.

To Rome with Love opens in selected cinemas from today.

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