The latest from writer/director Woody Allen is a return to the absurdest formula from his earlier career that crafts a tale of Americans and Italians dealing with love, fame, passion, death, and dreams. Unlike most of the director’s films over the past two decades To Rome with Love is a true ensemble that grabs absurdity with both hands and runs full speed right into a brick wall, producing some glorious insanity and plenty of laughs.
Broken into four separate vignettes, which are not forced to intertwine in the film’s final act (as many Hollywood movies of this type often do), To Rome with Love focuses on the absurdity of love set against the beautiful backdrop of one of Europe’s grandest cities. Given its setting, the film will undoubtedly be compared to last year’s acclaimed Midnight in Paris, but in truth To Rome with Love is far closer to Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (although we sadly don’t get a sequence with Gene Wilder and a sheep).
Allen and Judy Davis star as the parents of Hayley (Alison Pill), an American on holiday in Rome who falls for an Italian man named Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Allen is his trademark self as a neurotic former opera director and music producer with a history of bizarre and failed attempts at greatness. Jerry (Allen) is immediately taken with the untapped music talent of Michelangelo’s father (real-life opera star Fabio Armiliato) who sings pitch-perfect opera, but only in the shower. Despite the man’s initial reluctance, Jerry plans to make the undertaker a star – no matter how ridiculous things get.
Recently arrived in Rome, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) finds himself in a hopeless situation when his new bride Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) becomes lost in the city and the men he’s come to Rome to impress mistake a prostitute (Penélope Cruz), who has also mistaken Antonio for someone else, for Antonio’s wife. Forced into staying with the lie, Antonio convinces Anna to play the part of his new bride to impress his uncle’s business contacts (many of whom turn out to be her regular customers). Meanwhile, a completely lost Milly finds herself in the company of a famous movie star (Antonio Albanese) who takes an immediate shine to the young woman.
In a jibe on the fickleness of fame Roberto Benigni stars as Leopoldo, a boring average Italian who finds himself suddenly thrown into the spotlight for absolutely no reason. Leopoldo becomes hounded by the paparazzi who want his opinion on everything from what kind of underwear the man prefers to why he prefers his bread toasted. Of course, Leopoldo also encounters the more rewarding side of fame as he and his wife (Monica Nappo) are invited to movie premieres and the man finds himself hit on by a variety of beautiful women.
The fourth story stars Alec Baldwin as a famous architect retracing his steps of his misspent youth. After running into his younger self (Jesse Eisenberg), Jack tries tries to convince himself not to make the same mistakes by destroying his relationship with Sally (Greta Gerwig) for a fling with Sally’s more sexually adventurous and alluring best friend (Ellen Page). Although Eisenberg and Page do the heavy lifting here Baldwin steals a moment or two with perfect deadpan timing.
All the stories work well, including that of Benigni whose storyline has drawn the most critical ire. Although there is no attempt to combine them, all four inter-cut vignettes embrace the farcical nature of life and love as each embraces absurdity whether that be an unknown man discussing his underwear on television, an all-too-well-known prostitute pretending to be a newlywed, a man attempting to talk sense to a younger self who he knows will never listen, or a closeted opera singer performing in front of a packed house while, well, I won’t spoil that surprise here. In a city where prostitutes look like Penelope Cruz, where else could you possibly want to spend a couple of hours of your time?