To Rome with Love
Spoiler level, on a range of Zero to Barry Ronge: 5
Woody Allen’s latest, as we seem required to call it, is not bad.
Sure, okay, maybe he shouldn’t have put himself in it. His neurotic comedy, or comedic neurosis, is not funny any more; it’s uncomfortable. He’s 76. It’s funny when a 32-year-old is obsessed with death, but when it’s a septuagenarian it’s maybe too close to the bone. I’m saying, we’re not afraid of you dying, Woody, but we don’t want to be there when it happens.
Plus, in his 10 or so scenes in TRWL, Allen only made me laugh, like, three times. That’s way down from his average laugh-per-scene in movies like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), or Deconstructing Harry, or Sleeper, which was close to 1:1.
But still, I’m fond of seeing him in his movies. (It’s the first time he’s acted since Scoop in 2006.) It’s comforting and it just seems right. If nothing else, his voice still takes you right back to 1977, which is the year Annie Hall was made, and that’s not a bad thing.
To Rome with Love is made up of three formally unrelated storylines, two of which involve infidelity; a story Woody (can I call him Woody?) has told many times before. The one where either one or both members of a couple find themselves about to be unfaithful (… sexually) and the audience wants them to, because we’ve all realised it’s not such a big deal.
The third storyline, featuring Roberto Benigni, is a study of being famous for being famous.
That’s what’s great about Woody Allen. His films are not superficial crap, they’re thoughtful and interesting. But they’re not difficult or annoying, or inexplicably meaningless. Benigni becomes famous for no reason, gets chased by papparazzi who ask him facile questions like ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ and then treat his answers like momentous proclamations, and you’re like [thoughtfully], ‘Yeah … some people get famous for no reason …‘
It’s not a new idea, Malcolm Muggeridge was going on about it in the ’60s – but then again he had no idea what we would go through in the Kardasheonic era (or ‘error’, ah, ah, ah).
Then all of a sudden the press pack move on to their next random subject, and Benigni realises that although he hated being hounded, being a celebrity is actually better than being normal. Insight!
But probably the best thing about TRWL is Arec Bardwin, who I only recently discovered was awesome again, after I started watching 30 Rock.
He wafts in and out of the storyline in which Jesse Eisenberg’s character Jack falls in love with his girlfriend’s BFF, played by Ellen Page, who I feel the overpowering urge to call Elaine Page, and struggle to view as ‘hot’ because I hate Juno. (I haven’t seen it, but my roommate watched it many years ago and the memory of hearing that inane, interminable dialogue through the walls will never go away.)
Alec Baldwin’s character John does a very cool postmodern thing that I have never seen before.
At first he is completely ‘in’ the story, like a regular cast member, but then he becomes more like a soloist from a Greek chorus, or Marley’s Ghost from A Christmas Carol, suddenly appearing in rooms or on sightseeing trips, only visible to Jack (usually), as a cynical seer with a jaundiced view of romance, spouting great lines like, ‘Go ahead. Walk into the propeller.’ And then pouting.
Maybe you had to be there.
At first it seems as though Jack is living John’s life; that John has gone back in time to visit his younger self. They are both architects, Jack lives in the same street that John did as a young man, and the knowing advice that John’s older character gives Jack makes us think he also experienced falling in love with a sexy, manipulative nut.
So has John gone back in time to save his younger self from heartbreak? That doesn’t really work, because what dissolves the situation is not John’s sage advice but an external force [spoiler!]: Ellen Page’s character is called back to LA when she lands a big role.
On the other hand, Baldwin uses the phrase ‘Ozymandius Melancholia’ right at the beginning of the film, and says he learnt it from a young love. Later on, Page uses the same phrase, implying that she is that young love, because how many people are going to spout that crap, right?
But I don’t like this argument.
Because the other characters usually can’t hear them, the conversations between Baldwin and Eisenberg have the feel of theatrical asides – conversations between the actor and the audience – in which case, Baldwin is standing for us in the cinematic world. Woody Allen played around with these ideas a bit in The Purple Rose of Cairo, and they are much more interesting.
So, John is not part of the diegetic world – the film’s internal universe – and also exists outside of the film’s diagetic time, as the evening he spends away from his friends lasts for days in Jack’s world.
Although the situation doesn’t exactly break the fourth wall, it creates the impression that we could break it, if only to ask Alec Baldwin what the hell is going on. It’s a feeling similar to the one you get when a character looks straight at you through the camera.
Allen plays with these ideas in Giancarlo’s storyline too. He’s an undertaker with a fantastic voice, played by tenor Fabio Armiliato, who is overheard singing in the shower by retired madcap musical director Jerry, Allen’s character.
Giancarlo is too shy to perform on stage, and Jerry’s solution allows Giancarlo to exist both in the shower, his private world, and on the stage, the scary public world. Terrified humans clinging to the comfort of familiarity; it’s a recurring Woody Allen theme.
Simon read this so far, and said I should ‘say something nice about Penny Cruz, because her acting was really good’. Yeah, so, Penelope Cruz’s acting is better than ever in this movie. She spends the whole movie dressed as a whore, and her acting is top notch.
How I imagine Woody Allen taking casting calls for his leading ladies: ‘Is she blonde? Is she Penelope Cruz? Then tell her to fuck off.’
But at least Cruz is an Allen-calibre actor. I don’t understand the choices he makes sometimes. And I’m not alluding to this.
I mean, Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, a young Judy Davis, even Scarlett Johansson – pure class. He also gave Sigourney Weaver her first role – a minor non-speaking part right at the end of Annie Hall – and I’m pretty sure this is Jeff Goldblum’s first line in a movie. But then it’s like Helen Hunt? Téa Leoni? Debra Messing? I think he has always had trouble finding a leading man to replace himself, but Jason Biggs? WILL FERRELL?!? I thought Owen Wilson was the last straw, but it turns out the camel could take Jesse Eisenberg’s weight too.
Anyway, Allen’s new movie, to be shot in San Francisco ‘in the summer’, whatever that means, will reportedly be starring Cate Blanchett (class level: 5000), Sally Hawkins (Poppy from Happy-Go-Lucky, class level as yet undetermined), Alec Baldwin (classy as fuck), Louis CK (class level fluctuates wildly), Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay (zero class) and Peter Sarsgaard (some class).
Allen apparently hates the title To Rome With Love, he initially called the film Bop Decameron, a reference to Boccaccio that nobody got, and then Nero Fiddles, which nobody got either. It looks like Untitled Woody Allen Project has got a better deal on the acting front, let’s hope it gets a better class of title too.