Movie review: Woody Allen's 'To Rome With Love' finds humor in its eccentric characters


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City valentines are a film staple. Roman and Parisian holidays abound, as do cinematic "Adventures" in Manhattan, London, Lisbon, Rio -- just about everywhere except Pyongyang. Now comes the postman with the Woodman's charming love letter to the pines, fountains and schlemiels of Rome.

Woody Allen's 45th movie, "To Rome With Love," opens with Deano's velvet-voiced "Volare" while an Italian police officer (channeling our own Vic Cianca) artfully choreographs traffic at the intersection of four stories:


'To Rome With Love'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Woody Allen, Penelope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg, Judy Davis.
  • Rating: R for some mild sexual references.

A famous American architect, revisiting his old haunts, mentors a young version of himself with girl trouble.

A pair of provincial honeymooners stumble upon alternative partners.

A very disgruntled opera director discovers an unsung singing sensation.

A very gruntled office worker suddenly finds himself a celebrity.

There's a dozen characters to keep track of, but don't worry -- just savor them and the chemistry of their eccentricities.

Cynical celebrity architect John (Alec Baldwin), for instance, has seen and done it all, whereas naive rookie Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) has seen and done little. Which is why his live-in girlfriend warns him about the impending arrival of her BFF Monica (Ellen Page) -- a beautiful, sexy, smart, neurotic, out-of-work actress. Faithful Jack could never be attracted to that self-obsessed pseudo-intellectual siren (who drops one line -- but no more -- of Yeats, Pound, Kierkegaard and Camus on demand). Or could he?

Meanwhile, those newlywed lovebirds (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) are ensconced in their Roman hotel, preparing to meet the groom's stuffy relatives. But when the bride leaves to get her hair done, hooker Anna (Penelope Cruz) shows up to tell him, "I am here to fulfill your dreams" -- and turn them into nightmares.

The word "disgruntled" above is not just a clue but a synonym for the Woody Allen character of Jerry, whose avant-garde staging of "Rigoletto" (with the singers costumed as white mice) was ahead of its time and led to his early retirement. He and his psychiatrist-wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) are in Rome to visit their daughter and her fiance, whose mortician-father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) -- when not busy embalming -- sings exquisite Puccini arias in the shower. But only in the shower.

And then there's Leopoldo, the ultimate nebbish, played by Roberto Benigni in his first big American film role since winning the Oscar for "Life Is Beautiful" (1997). Exactly WHY does Leopoldo wake up one day to find himself famous? Nobody knows. Like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, he's just famous for being famous, and his warrantless fame comes with great perks: Women want to sleep with him and know all about him. Does he wear boxers or briefs? Does he butter his toast or prefer it dry? As with Peter Seller's immortal Chauncey Gardener in "Being There," everyone hangs on his every ridiculous word.

Mr. Benigni's character wears thin after a while, but Ms. Davis' never does. As shrink-foil to hubby Woody, she takes the fine art of (often wordless) reaction to new heights, making all of their scenes work. And we never get tired of the insanely sexy Ms. Cruz, poured into her Satan-scarlet strumpet's dress. But equally beguiling is her rival Mastronardi, the country girl who gets lost and drops her cell phone on the way to that hairdresser. It's the best thing that ever happened to her: She can't be summoned or interrupted when a famously bald, lecherous movie star hits on her, forcing her to ponder the age-old question, "Is it better to sleep with him and regret it, or to NOT sleep with him -- and regret it?"

Sexually, the women in "To Rome With Love" are largely caricatures; so are most of the men. That's Woody. But the chorus-like (ubiquitous, invisible) Mr. Baldwin character is annoying. "Will you stay out of the scene for a moment?" Jack begs. Me, too.

Other quibbles: Mr. Eisenberg (always to be confused, by me, with Michael Cera) delivers Woody Allen's dialogue like Woody himself, replicating the trademark stammer as Will Ferrell did in "Melinda" and Owen Wilson in "Midnight in Paris." And the film's Roman atmosphere is not really very compelling. "Three Coins in the Fountain" it's not.

But Fabio Armiliato's shower performances as the crooning mortician -- especially the "Pagliacci" apotheosis-finale -- are, truly, to die for. Some may recall his stellar roles at La Scala, the Met and in Pittsburgh Opera's "Andrea Chenier" under Tito Capobianco, co-starring Myrna Paris (relation). Mr. Armiliato is both a great tenor and a hilariously self-effacing good sport.

How and where, exactly, do the four stories intersect? The answer is nowhere, which makes Mr. Allen's editing mastery even more crucial than usual. This spoof on the fickle finger of fame -- getting it, getting rid of it -- just happily relies on plot-convenient contrivances as it becomes more screwball and Feydeau-farcical, like "Flea in Her Ear." In the wake of "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," "Midnight in Paris," and the brilliant London trilogy ("Match Point," "Scoop," "Cassandra's Dream"), one worries about the danger of James Michener-itis. What's next -- "To Chesapeake or Poland With Love"?

Probably not. Nothing too exotic or cutting-edge. The kinder, gentler Woody is mellowing at 76. Life is comically cruel whether you're famous or obscure, he says, but it's more fun to be a celebrity for at least five (if not the full 15) minutes.

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Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.


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