Thursday, 27 September 2012

REVIEW: To Rome With Love (2012)

To Rome With Love is this year’s Woody Allen film and his first since the surprise success of Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen has a chequered critical history, though his recent bad reputation is hardly justified. Consistent throughout his films, from the “early funny ones” to the unfairly derided late ones, is a willingness to try new things, though always within a recognisable framework. His late films have ranged from bleak morality fables (Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream) to whimsical and enjoyable entertainments (Whatever Works and Midnight in Paris) or those with elements of both (Anything Else, Melinda and Melinda, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger), but all have a slightly experimental edge. To Rome With Love is very much a part of the latter category and it is very enjoyable.

The film is made up of four unrelated stories, all set along different timelines, but all introduced by a traffic warden (Pierluigi Marchionne). What follows is a potted summary, which will do the film no favours, but the less you know going in the better. Hayley (Alison Pill, Zelda Fitzgerald in Midnight In Paris) is an American tourist, who becomes engaged to Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). When their parents meet, things happen. Newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) arrive in Rome for a honeymoon, but Milly gets lost, forcing Antonio to find a substitute for a series of business meetings. Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) wakes up one morning to find out that he is suddenly and for no apparent reason famous. Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), an architecture student, invites John (Alec Baldwin), a middle-aged architect, back to his house. John observes Jack’s romantic confusion when his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) invites her friend Monica (Ellen Page) to stay.

To Rome With Love flits through each story at a fast pace, which means that the film does not linger too long on any of them. Admittedly, two of them have their duller stretches and none of them would have withstood a feature length treatment. The stories are reminiscent of Allen’s short prose, collected in “Getting Even”, “Without Feathers” and “Side Effects”, whimsical little pieces that are enjoyable and often funny but, crucially, don’t outstay their welcome. As a compilation of stories, To Rome With Love is quite a success. Each story has enough surprises and enough laughs to keep them interesting and two of them are particularly good – the Alison Pill storyline and the Jesse Eisenberg/Alec Baldwin ones. As a whole, the film is thoroughly enjoyable, but also really rather charming in an old fashioned way.

Ultimately, Woody Allen offers something that Hollywood has not managed to make in quite a while – films whose sole raison d’etre is the audiences’ amusement. It recalls films like The Thin Man series and Top Hat and the films of the Marx Brothers, movies that exist only to entertain and to cheer us up. By comparison, the Hollywood of today has become cynical. Filmmaking is not about enjoyment anymore, but about the money. To Rome With Love is intentionally, even gleefully, out of place. Neither does it have the resonance of Annie Hall or Manhattan or Crimes and Misdemeanours or even You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, but it is remarkably capable of making you leave the cinema with a smile on your face, even despite your own better judgement. It is disposable, but why is that such a bad thing if the film is so entertaining?

To Rome With Love has good ideas - the narrative device involving Alec Baldwin is fun and intriguing in equal measure – some great performances, clever plotting and a good ear for music and scenery. It is too easy to dismiss it as a throwaway travelogue but as a piece of pleasant, good-natured entertainment, it is a satisfying little gem.

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