To Rome With Love--this year's cappuccino to last summer's aperitif, when Woody Allen invited us to visit Paris at midnight--is a frothy sip of the Eternal City, the filmmaker's latest stop on his quite successful world tour. Though not among his absolute best, Allen's Roman Holiday holds its own among the Italian ruins and remains a lovely flight of fancy, worthy of a midsummer night's visit.
Perhaps the most surprising element of the film, a collage of lighter-than-meringue fables, is the appearance of Allen himself in his first on-screen role since 2006's much-forgotten Scoop, and more than three decades since his halcyon days of Annie Hall and Manhattan. In his latest foray, Allen plays Jerry, a retired classical music promoter, husband to Phyllis (Judy Davis), father to Hayley (Alison Pill) and curmudgeon to everyone else on the planet. Jerry equates his retirement with death, so when he encounters mortician Giancarlo (opera star Fabio Armiliato in his film debut), who sings angelically but only in the shower, Jerry is certain that he has discovered the world's next great tenor. Trouble is, Giancarlo doesn't sing that well when he's dry. The conceit is nothing new, and while audiences can see where the plot is heading from a piazza away, the opportunity to hear Armiliato sing a very damp Pagliacci on the stage of La Scala (complete with soap, shampoo and loofah) is a fun-soaked delight.
I must admit to a severe mental block when approaching a Woody Allen film. I've never been able to look past his repulsive personal behavior, but somehow, his last few films have offered fine entertainment.
In 1996, Allen pulled up stakes from his beloved Manhattan, embarking on a European jazz tour, temporarily halting his film career in favor of playing clarinet with the New Orleans Jazz Band. Perhaps he was scouting locations to enhance his film work, which by then was quite stale.
So when he was ready to return to cinema Allen broke away from his New York state of mind to film three swell movies in London, an even better film (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) in Spain, and one of his best-ever in France: last year's Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris. It was quite natural for Rome to follow. Perhaps Allen's European adventure was self-imposed rehabilitation; maybe it was fate. I'm guessing it was a bit of both.
As usual, Allen surrounds himself with some of the best talent available his new film: Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page. And of course, Allen's usual --isms (existentialism, narcissism, romanticism) are in full bloom. Neurosis is practically Allen's costar.
Above all, Allen is a master of framing the world's wonders through a camera lens. As he so gloriously captured the canyons of New York in Manhattan a generation ago, Allen now showcases Rome's vistas in that perfect slice of twilight when day becomes evening. Perhaps Allen's Rome is more Americano than cappuccino, but it's worth a sip or two. And maybe a biscotti to go.