TO ROME WITH LOVE (2012)
Running Time: 112 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Woody Allen
Language: English and Italian w/English subtitles
Distributor: Sony Classics
Cast: Woody Allen, Penelope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg, Judy David, Roberto Benigni, Alison Pill, Alec Baldwin, Carol Alt, Ornella Muti, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page
Another of the films I caught up with during a free cable promotion was Woody Allen’s TO ROME WITH LOVE. It wasn’t letterboxed. For some reason none of Woody Allen’s films are shown, even on premium cable, letterboxed. In this day and age this has to be deliberate. His early, funny films are shown in letterbox, but after a certain period they’re not. Is he afraid that someone will own a letterboxed copy of his films without some of the money finding its way into chez Allen? I don’t know, but I thought this picture was from a decade or so ago and was surprised to find it was as recent as 2012. Gone are the days when I used to go to a theater on the Upper East Side on opening day, so anxious was I to get my Woody Allen fix. Now they seem to regularly float past me. The screenings get ever more eccentric and difficult to book. I think SWEET AND LOWDOWN was the last Woody Allen screening I attended.
TO ROME WITH LOVE is four stories woven, after a fashion, together. The fly in the ointment here is that none of the stories are chronologically parallel. One story seems to take place over a day, another takes a month, still another over some months.
One story is a direct steal from a famous early Fellini comedy, THE WHITE SHEIK. It concerns a pair of provincial newlyweds who come to Rome to meet his relatives. The wife wanders away to meet her hero, The White Sheik (Alberto Sordi) a character in the predecessor to the graphic novel known as the fumetti. These are stories told in a series of photographed tableaux with the dialogue appearing in balloons that resembled puffs of smoke, hence the name, fumetti. The humor was in the husbands’ desperate tactics designed to explain why his wife isn’t available to meet his relatives, and the wife losing herself in experiencing the wild world of quasi filmmaking as she becomes involved in the making of a fumetti at the beach.
Woody steals this lock stock and barrel. But is it stealing? Jazz musicians take the tunes of other jazz musicians and render their versions, which are considered legitimate variations. Jazz vocalist Eddie Jefferson put words to a saxophone solo by James Moody called Moody’s Mood For Love. This was a version of I’m In The Mood For Love, a tune ostensibly by McHugh and Fields.
So why can’t Woody Allen riff on the standards like a jazz musician? It certainly can act like a career extender for a prolific filmmaker. BULLETS OVER BROADWAY is a reimagining of LES ENFANTS DU PARADISE, BLUE JASMINE a version of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Allen’s take on THE WHITE SHEIK contains two variations. In Allen’s version the husband in confronted by that hoariest of farce conventions, the paid for prostitute who misidentifies her client and then won’t take no for an answer. And the wife, instead of actively seeking out her hero, the White Sheik, merely wanders away forgetting the name of her hotel and how to get back to it.
While the White Sheik is vein, plump, and hammy, he is a romantic hero in the wife’s naive eyes. Allen’s wife wanders into a movie set where the vain, bloated movie star is actually admired by the cast and crew. She accepts his offer to go to a hotel with him, but his angry wife, detective and divorce lawyer, arrive at their door while they’re in bed. Then miraculously a thief breaks into the hotel room (what is the plural for deus ex machina) and the actor sets them up in bed, the wife and co. break into the room and instead of finding the actor en flagrante, they find two strangers in bed. The wife, never having had sex with a criminal decides to increase her experience file. The husband has already had sex with the prostitute and learned what fun sex can be. Reunited they decide that they don’t need Rome and equipped with a sexual hunger can live just as well “back home”. Its difficult to say, but all of this must take place over a day.
Some of these stories take on the aspects of the short, humorous pieces Allen wrote for The New Yorker. The conceit of the story he prepared for Roberto Benigni is simple and obvious. An ordinary man who lives a mundane existence who goes through the same routine every day, one day he walks out to his car to go to work when he’s stopped in the street by a man who begins to ask him questions and people begin to gather around him. He answers questions about the mundane details of his mundane existence and they are reported in the media. Headlines state that he likes toast and shaves before breakfast. He is followed wherever he goes by paparazzi and hysterical crowds. His every movement is reported enthusiastically. People are always stopping him on the street for his autograph. In fact he is getting the full celebrity treatment. The joke is that there is no reason for his celebrity. A celebrity, after all, is just somebody famous for being famous. It doesn’t make any difference if there is no reason for them being famous in the first place. There are advantages too. He walks into a packed restaurant and is immediately seated. Then one day, he leaves for work and suddenly another man is stopped and questioned on the street and nobody is interested in him anymore. At first he is relieved but then disappointed by his return to obscurity and pretends that he is still a celebrity to no one and no effect.
This seems to take place over several days, maybe even a week, and he does get to use his celebrity to have sex with two glamorous babes at the same time. Score another one for sex. The episode very much reminds me of Jacque Tati. Dialogue was mumbled and really is of no consequence.
In the third story, Woody even rips himself off. Jack, an American architecture student runs into John, a successful American architect out for a stroll in Trastevere, his old stomping grounds when he was a student. Identifying with the younger version of himself, he goes home with him to find his beautiful blonde American girlfriend in the kitchen. She tells him about her girlfriend, a failed actress who just had a bad break-up, and who’s coming to Rome and she suggests that they should invite her to stay with them. John points out the implicit danger in this. It soon become clear that John isn’t all there.
Just as in the very early Allen screenplay, PLAY IT AGAN, SAM, John is a specter whose presence is to lend advice. In the earlier film he was represented by the adolescent fantasy of Humphrey Bogart advising a twenty something Woody on the sexual ethics of sleeping with his best friend’s girl friend. In TO ROME WITH LOVE John is an experienced and cynical roue, giving advice to Jack on the problems of having this additional woman in the house. He knows this can lead to trouble. First seeing her at the airport, Jack is distinctly unimpressed with her looks and can’t see any danger. She moves in and they’re continuously thrown together. The inevitable happens and he becomes ensnared by her thespian charm. They have sex and begin an affair. He’s just about to dump his girlfriend and take up with her and pledge undying love to each when she gets that call from Hollywood and an offer to be in a movie and he ceases to exist. Just like that. John walks past the place where he first met Jack, seemingly to go back to his own story. This all seems to take place over a series of weeks.
The most problematic story and the one that most resembles one of his “whimsical” New Yorker short stories is the one that Woody acts in. Maybe his most famous story was the one chronically the Earl of Sandwiches’ trials and tribulations to invent a portable lunch. This story concerns a retired opera director played by Woody and his sarcastic wife going to Rome for their daughter’s wedding to a communist lawyer. His father just happens to be an undertaker (cue Woody’s fear of death shtick, there its gone) who happens to be a world-class opera voice. Woody wants to promote him as such but finds out he can only sing in the shower. So Woody promotes first a recital then a performance of Pagliacci where Giancarlo appears on stage in a shower soaping up. Of course the fact that there is no plumbing connection doesn’t seem bother anyone. It’s a pretty weak premise, a one-joke curiosity. It would have worked better on the page. This must take place over some months.
In fact Woody uses this episode for a punch line that harks back to the day when Woody was a nebbish loser character. Woody is reading his reviews and doesn’t understand the word “imbecille”. A lifetime as an opera director and a resident of Roma for who knows how long and he never came across the word before. He asks what it means and his wife lies to him.
Which leads to the narrative strategy of telling four stories piecemeal. In portmanteau films stories, by different directors, are rendered entire sequentially.
John Ford told three stories, one after the other in THE RISING OF THE MOON. The only reason it seems that Allen intercut the stories was to disguise their perfunctory nature. It was the same strategy used in the tv series The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Give each story an introduction, a straight line as it were, and the weakness are hidden, or at least ameliorated. That’s four scenes times four, and pretty soon, you have a movie. Sort of.
Then there’s Woody Allen’s Rome. I remember there was a time that Woody used to brag that he never slept one night outside New York City. I used to cringe when New Yorkers complained about the provincialism of out-of-towners when they could point to insular New Yorkers like Woody Allen. I’m sure by the 1980’s Woody spent his share of weekend nights in Castillo Farrow, deep in the Connecticut countryside. Lately Woody has been coaxed out of The City to make films in London, Paris and Barcelona, in line with Willie Sutton’s possibly apocryphal axiom. I haven’t seen those films but Allen’s unfamiliarity with Rome as a young man and experienced only as a coddled elderly tourist, renders Rome as a retro object. There is virtually no affection for the place.
There was a film some years ago called NORTH, which I opined was written by a 14-year-old boy circa 1960 because it embodied a viewpoint of Europe when only rich people traveled. Men in suits and ties and hats and women in cocktail dresses and hats took luxury liners. The rest of us watched the Technicolor movies and imagined only the broadest idea of these foreign places. We knew nothing of the world in those dear, dead, “innocent” days.
This is Woody’s Rome signified by the intro and theme music, Volare and Arrivederci Roma. The locations are not well served and perfunctorily presented. Nothing either witty or clever. There is no personal attachment to Rome. It could have been filmed anywhere. There is no sense of place. This film could have been released on VueMaster.
Now after savaging TO ROME WITH LOVE I have to admit I was always amused, it was a pleasant experience, the film had some wit, I was never bored (the editing?). I think that reviewers who are bombarded with crap they must watch and approve of every day, a Woody Allen film, no matter how wan, must be like an oasis. Reviewer after reviewer, though few actually came out and called it a bad film, remarked that at least it was a new Woody Allen film and worried about the day when there would be no more. Roger Ebert liked the singing in the shower episode most and failed to mention the strong resemblance to THE WHITE SHEIK of the newlywed episode. Many mentioned Woody’s New Yorker short fiction, but few, if any, mentioned Fellini. Reminds me of the idea that young poets plagiarize, old poets steal. They chose to ignore it, recounting the episode as if it were just a normal day.
The best thing about a Woody Allen film is that it reminds you of other, better, Woody Allen films. Not to extend a metaphor, but its like revisiting a city from one’s past, long since vulgarized into a tourist hell, but it still brings back memories of other, happier times. The problem is Woody doesn’t have any memories connected to Rome. The bigger problem is he doesn’t have any sort of urgency to tell any story in particular.
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