[This review also appears at Awards Daily]
The stars came out tonight to launch the 18th Annual Los Angeles Film Festival and even Woody Allen, whose character Alvy Singer once famously asked of L.A. “Who would want to live in a place where the only cultural advantage is that you can turn right on a red light?” is in town to celebrate the festival’s opening with the North American Premiere of his latest film To Rome With Love. New York is still New York, but for one night at least, Woody Allen and his film belong right here. Advantage: Los Angeles.
Fresh off his biggest box office success with Midnight in Paris, Allen has moved on to another European metropolis for inspiration continuing a pattern that has been giving his career a shot of energy since Match Point. While Allen may still be ambivalent about L.A., he clearly has no such reservations about Rome and his admiration is here on shining display. To Rome With Love has the infectious bounce of Fellini in a playful mood. It even mirrors some of the themes of 8½, but with less angst and more of Allen’s funny cynicism. The elusiveness of fame, of talent, of love – and how the three sometimes intermingle inharmoniously – drive each of the four unconnected shorts that make up the film which at times feels like a throwback to some of the slapstick and absurdist comedy of Allen’s earlier career. While Rome is often endearingly silly, there’s a poignancy beneath it all too that grows as the stories move along. Ultimately these are tales told by an older, possibly wiser and certainly more reflective artist.
To itemize the ins and outs of the various plots would be to give away much of the pleasure they provide so I’ll spare you the usual synopsis. Among the best bits though, Penelope Cruz shines as a prostitute who, for various reasons, pretends she’s the new wife of a young Italian for the benefit of the man’s wealthy family. That Cruz is beautiful and sexy is a given, but she brings a directness and a carnality to her character that adds a new layer to her work.
Besides Cruz, it’s also fun to see Woody himself on screen again, this time as the father of Alison Pill. She’s fallen in love in Rome with plans to marry and has dragged Woody and his wife Judy Davis out to meet the parents. Roberto Benigni meanwhile is surprisingly (and thankfully) restrained as a middle class family man who is suddenly and inexplicably turned into a celebrity.
Overall, the best segment involves Alec Baldwin as an older man returning to a neighborhood in which he once lived where he runs into Jesse Eisenberg, a sort of version of his younger self. Like a sarcastic guardian angel – it’s never clear whether he’s real or a figment – Baldwin continues to pop up and provide commentary and advice as Eisenberg’s domestic situation with girlfriend Greta Gerwig is upset by the arrival of her friend Ellen Page. It’s this story that really lends To Rome With Love its meaningful edge. Baldwin has been here and done this before and he has all the answers, yet there’s a longing as he watches Eisenberg go ahead and make mistakes anyway. It’s as if to say, “Yes we were pretty stupid when we were young, but wouldn’t it be great to go back and make all those mistakes again?”
Unlike a typical omnibus where one short follows another, Allen weaves in and out of his stories as the film goes along. The result is that Rome is paced like a more traditional narrative rather than being broken up with the usual start, stop, start over rhythm you get with a series of shorts. Though the stories aren’t related, they flow nicely and what Rome might lack in narrative precision, it makes up in humor and in a certain thematic interconnectedness that is subtle yet manages to unify.
Because it is frequently kind of silly, it’s tempting to write off To Rome With Love as slight, but there is a gentle gravity at work here that is magnified when you think back on it after the dust settles. Often funny, it is loose and effortless and unforced, but that doesn’t mean it is insignificant. It’s another winner from Allen who continues to find new inspiration wherever he goes.