To Rome with Love is a combination of all the comedic modes of Woody Allen movies. I wouldn’t say it’s the ultimate Woody Allen movie, because his classics that excel at one thing are just fine, but it is a fine example of Allen at his best. Four stories in Italy display four different modes of Woody Allen comedy, and none of them intersect Short Cuts style, unless I really missed something. Maybe that’s Allen’s fifth comment on ensemble stories, but the four modes of comedy on display are:
1. Meta – Architecture student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) meets famous architect John (Alec Baldwin) in the streets of Italy. What begins as an informal conversation with a mentor becomes John popping in throughout a love triangle between Jack, his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and Sally’s outgoing flaky actor friend Monica (Ellen Page).
In true Woody Allen fashion, John is not just a character in the story, nor one that only Jack can hear. Monica and Sally address him many times, and John just floats in and out of scenes. I adore this. Allen is able to comment on the structure of love stories and the devices we take for granted in movies.
He’s done this before, not only in Annie Hall when obscure artists join Alvy Singer to advise for a scene, but in Mighty Aphrodite when Lenny interacts with his own Greek chorus. John is sort of meta meta though. It’s one thing to have a character comment on the story in which he’s participating. It’s another to comment on the commenting.
2. Magical Realism – It’s not quite fantasy, but Allen throws a surreal sort of MacGuffin and then otherwise treats it as logical reality. Office grunt Leopoldo Pisanello (Roberto Benigni) suddenly becomes a celebrity. There’s no reason, it’s just accepted that it happened. Paparazzi hound him, reporters cover his morning shave and red carpet press gush over his wife’s budget dress and runny stockings.
This is my favorite type of Woody Allen. He can comment on fame by putting it through a surreal prism. If we treated regular people the way we treat celebrities, wouldn’t it look ridiculous? But it’s also endearing, partly because Benigni clearly enjoys it so much. Not even the seediest tabloids actually cover morning shaves, but that’s the magic that keeps it in the fun zone. It’s not an expose on the media, it’s about Pisanello’s dreams. This storyline pays off somewhat predictably, but it’s still delightful. Let’s call it an inevitable conclusion.
3. Farce – Woody Allen can do farce like the best of them. The story where newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) get separated is basic. A miscommunication sends prostitute Ana (Penelope Cruz) to Antonio’s room while Milly is out. So of course he has to pretend that Ana is Milly to his relatives. I mean, why wouldn’t he have to do that?
This story is worth seeing for Cruz in the red dress alone. It’s got some classic pratfalls and spit takes, all reveling in the absurdity of a misunderstanding that’s not even really a misunderstanding. They’re just going with it.
4. High Concept – Hayley (Alison Pill) invites her parents (Woody Allen and Judy Davis) to meet her fiancé Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). In the in-laws’ home, her father Jerry discovers Michelangelo’s father (Fabio Armiliato) is a fabulous opera singer. However he is only good in the shower. Do you see where Woody Allen is going with this?
It’s an old joke that someone is only a good singer when they are showering, but I can’t recall anyone actually putting that to the test comedically. If they have, it certainly wasn’t as memorable as what Allen has real tenor Armiliato do on stage.
It’s also nice to see Allen appearing in one of his movies again. It might have gotten old for a while about 10 years ago, but now it’s been so long it’s refreshing. He’s still the same curmudgeon obsessed with mortality, and he doesn’t really have any zingers this time, but it works and it never hurts hurt the film. Only now he wears his pants too high. Pull your pants down, Woody.
His writing remains sharp as ever, particularly in a scene where Monica describes her lesbian fantasy encounter. The photography of Italy is gorgeous, so just watching comedic scenes and storylines play out in them is lovely, especially those sweeping 360 shots.
Woody Allen is on a hot streak. Let’s hope the days of Scoop and Curse of the Jade Scorpion are long behind him. I can’t wait to hear Andrew Dice Clay speaking Allen’s intellectual comedy. Oh!