Woody Allen fans can be broadly divided into those who appreciate the prolific film-maker's acting as well as his writing and directing and those who would rather he stay behind the camera. In To Rome with Love, Allen's 44th feature, he writes himself a typical part - an affluent New York Jew abroad, a retiree full of insecurities and attitude - and arguably the performance is one of his finest, demonstrating that in the six years Woody's been absent from the screen he has lost none of his comic timing. Whilst Allen looks robust enough for 77, for the first he creates a character for himself who is facing mortality as a matter of chronological fact rather than neurotic paranoia. It gives the schtick a fresh edge. Both the one-liners and the situation - the promotion of an aspiring opera singer who does his best work in the shower - are genuinely funny.
The film as a whole is far less successful. Allen's screenplays are usually tightly written, reflecting clarity of ideas and structural cleverness. There's no shortage of the former in To Rome with Love but there's also a lot of dross and little connection between the various subplots. It's as though he forgot to go beyond the first draft and rushed into production before the script was quite finished, without a proper beginning or end. So poorly constructed is the film that it begins with one narrator yet ends with another, neither of whom feature in any of the story lines nor obviously relate to the wider themes.
In its best moments To Rome with Love does recapture the spirit of old Italian sex farces like Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. The story of small town newly weds with big city aspirations who get separated on their honeymoon could have been directed by Vittorio De
Sica, especially as Allen has the sense to cast Penelope Cruz as one of his whores-with-a-heart-of-gold. With good humour and no shortage of sensuality Cruz continues to channel Sophia Loren circa 1963.
Allen's use of the only actual Italian movie star in the cast is likewise inspired. Roberto Begnini features as a middle class clerk who inexplicably becomes the focus of national media attention. Famous for being famous, his character's every thought and action are reported as they were ground breaking news. An obvious, even repetitive satire on today's celebrity culture - Allen goes so far as to spell out the point in a line of dialogue - the story's nonetheless good for quite a few belly laughs.
The English language portions of the film are weak in comparison. Jesse Eisenberg enjoys the type of part that Woody himself used to play in his performance prime, a nervous young man improbably caught between two beautiful women. While Ellen Page is well cast as a self-centred actress - another of the director's stock characters - poor Greta Gerwig has too little to do as the trusting girlfriend and the scenario is neither credible nor emotionally involving. Allen has played these cards too often before, with better actors in better movies.
The saddest aspect of To Rome with Love is its clumsy fantasy conceit. Alec Baldwin has an ambiguous part as Eisenberg's confident, an invisible-to-others projection of the character's potential future. The idea is sketchy at best and surprisingly witless. It's hard to believe that the same man responsible for last year's effortlessly charming Midnight in Paris is striking out so badly.
For all that there's probably enough to satisfy the Allen hardcore. Happily, he has another feature in the pipeline for 2013. Even if To Rome with Love is destined to be remembered as minor Woody Allen the septuagenarian master has plenty of time to redeem himself.
- © Fairfax NZ News