Movie Review: To Rome with Love
By Matthew Huntley
July 4, 2012
Woody Allen films, most of them comedies, often contain an underlying subtext that raises them to a higher level of thought. Manhattan, in my opinion his greatest achievement, was a character-driven rom-com that had a lasting message about male insecurity; Radio Days bordered on being a sitcom but eventually grew into a touching family drama; and Crimes and Misdemeanors, at times darkly humorous, was a serious commentary about the irreparable damage caused by lying and adultery.
With To Rome with Love, there doesn’t seem to be a deeper, implicit meaning. It’s more a straight, whimsical comedy where what we see is what we get, which is perfectly fine, because it’s bright, funny and charming, a film you can watch and enjoy without having to think too much about it. That’s not a knock on the film’s intelligence or capabilities; in fact, I commend it for seamlessly weaving its disparate elements in and out of each other. With its beautiful locations and colorful people, watching it is like taking a relaxing vacation.
And yet, how can it be relaxing when all the characters in it are anything but? Maybe it’s because the look and tone of the movie are so soothing, and the individuals so likable and pleasant. Even though everything they do is governed by a plot, none of it feels contrived. Allen makes the events seem haphazard, which makes them easier to accept, especially for an ensemble comedy.
There are a plethora of characters to mention, each of various backgrounds and quiddities, but the focus isn’t on how they’re all going to connect, but rather on how they’re going to behave when it has them. Each plays a role in either a romantic or fantastical story that takes place in Rome. They either live or work there, are on vacation, or are studying abroad or visiting friends. Allen jumps from one to another on a whim but makes it easy to follow.
Hayley (Alison Pill) is an American on holiday from New York and has a meet cute with Michelangelo, pronounced “Meek,” not “Mike” (Flavio Parenti), a native Italian and pro bono lawyer with strong convictions for the average blue collar worker. He’s not too thrilled when Hayley’s parents, Jerry (Woody Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis), arrive and her father, recently retired from the classical music business, overhears Michelangelo’s father (Fabio Armaliato) singing in the shower and believes he could be Italy’s next great opera singer. (This could be an in-joke to opera aficionados since Armaliato is actually an acclaimed tenor in real life.) This leads to one of the movie’s funniest and most original sequences, which I won’t reveal, but it would make any live stage performance all the more interesting.
In another part of the city, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) is an American architecture student living with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). Sally’s best friend Monica (Ellen Page) visits from Los Angeles and Jack finds himself slowly smitten by her, despite the warnings from John (Alec Baldwin), an established architect himself who lived in Italy 30 years ago. He serves as Jack’s unofficial conscience and shows up at just the right time to offer his two cents. The movie has fun by asking us to question whether John is a figment of Jack’s imagination or a corporeal being...at least some of the time. Regardless, John sees right through Monica and accuses her of being a phony name-dropper, which is exactly what Jack likes about her.
On the Italian side of things, Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) is an average office clerk who wakes up one morning and finds he’s suddenly Italy’s biggest celebrity. Without explanation, he’s the primary target of the paparazzi and all the major news networks, who are fascinated by such mundane things as what Leopoldo had for breakfast, whether he thinks it’s going to rain, or the run in his wife’s (Monica Nappo) nylons. That the movie doesn’t attempt to rationalize Leopoldo’s newfound fame is illustrative of its magical world.
An actual celebrity in the movie is Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese), an actor who catches the eye of Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi). She and her husband Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) are newlyweds and have recently arrived in Rome so he can work for his stuffy aunts and uncles. When Milly gets lost on the way to a hair salon, she and Antonio go the whole day having their loyalty to each other tested by outside sexual influence – she by Salta and he by a buxom call girl named Anna (Penelope Cruz), who could actually teach Antonio a thing or two.
Allen gives each of these stories, which are not necessarily interlocking, the right amount of screen time. At each stop, he progresses what’s necessary, plays them for laughs and moves on, which works because we can’t quite envision each thread supporting an entire feature on its own. As they are, they’re cute and fun, but they border on being too cute and fun and run the risk of wearing out their welcome. Sooner or later, we need greater substance (we can’t relax all the time), but by using an episodic strategy, the film as a whole sustains its energy and rhythm. It works splendidly as a compilation of amusing vignettes that collectively put us at ease with laughter and smiles. Sometimes, that’s all a comedy needs to do.