Don’t psychoanalyse me! Many have tried. All have failed.” The significance of these lines, spoken by a retired music promoter named Jerry in To Rome With Love, is what a follower of Dr Freud might call overdetermined. Jerry is played by Woody Allen, the director of this amusing little picture, and, well, where to begin? To have written about Allen’s work is, inevitably, to be counted among Jerry’s “many,” and so I can only say touché, amen, and I give up.
I’m reminded of an exchange from Stardust Memories, an earlier Italian-accented Woody Allen film. “What do you think was the significance of the Rolls-Royce?” someone asks after seeing a movie directed by Allen’s character. “I think it represented his car,” is the answer. And so, in a similar vein, I’m fairly certain that Rome in the new movie is a metaphor for the capital of Italy.
The beginning of To Rome With Love suggests a return to this durable theme, as we observe a fresh-faced young woman, charmingly lost on her way to the Trevi Fountain, asking directions from a handsome young Italian man. Another ingénue falling into the sinister clutches of a Continental seducer? Not really. Her name is Hayley, she is played by Alison Pill (Zelda Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris), and her inamorato, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), is a decent and earnest lawyer devoted to Left-wing causes. Their courtship is relatively free of conflict or ambivalence, though the arrival of Hayley’s parents — Allen and Judy Davis — causes a bit of a kerfuffle.
Romantic complication can be found elsewhere, for example in the farcical temptations faced by Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi), young newly-weds just arrived in Rome from Pordenone. And embedded in this genial tangle of stories (which Allen seems to have unpacked from a steamer trunk full of notes and sketches) is, inevitably, the tale of an anxious, New Yorkish intellectual, addled by conflicting desires.
He is Jack, a fledgling architect — played, speaking of overdetermination, by Jesse Eisenberg — who lives with his kind-hearted, somewhat bland girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig), in a cosy apartment in the Trastevere section of Rome. One day Sally’s friend Monica (Ellen Page) shows up for a visit, and she turns out to be a high-strung, pretentious, neurotic actress who... okay, fine. No spoilers here, but no points for guessing right, either.
Jack’s ordeal is witnessed by an older architect, John (Alec Baldwin), whose (ahem) ontological status is in some doubt. He may be some kind of ghost, or else Jack may be a spectre of John’s younger self ruefully projected onto the streets that were his former stamping grounds.
One of the most delightful things about To Rome With Love is how casually it blends the plausible and the surreal, and how unabashedly it revels in pure silliness. The plots, which are cut together in no special order, obey different time schemes: Antonio and Milly’s marital drama (which involves a prostitute played by Penélope Cruz, and a movie star played by Antonio Albanese) seems to occupy a single afternoon, while other strands stretch over weeks and months. They rarely intersect, forming a shuffled, syncopated anthology, a variation on the multi-director omnibus films that were a staple of Italian cinema in the 1950s and ’60s.
There was nothing especially French about Midnight in Paris, Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux notwithstanding. And though Allen is lionised as an auteur in France (almost as much as Clint Eastwood and Jerry Lewis), that country’s film tradition has not significantly informed his own work. While nothing matches his worship of Ingmar Bergman, Italian movies of various types — high and low, comic and tragic, kitschy and classic — have fed his imagination in ways obvious and implicit. (The closest thing he has done to a remake, Small Time Crooks, was based on the 1958 caper Big Deal on Madonna Street, directed by Mario Monicelli.)
To Rome With Love — a fairly generic title that reportedly replaced the more evocative Bop Decameron and Nero Fiddled — is full of affection for the motley patchwork of Italian culture. The soundtrack includes famous operatic passages and old-style romantic ballads, but also the kind of cheesy, synthetic pop that can, like some of the nation’s television productions, make a visitor wonder about Italy’s reputation for impeccable aesthetic judgement. And while we’re on that subject, Allen makes room for Roberto Benigni, who some of us might have hoped would vanish forever after the 1999 Academy Awards broadcast.
But Benigni, a gifted clown, is quite endearing as an ordinary, middle-class Roman plunged arbitrarily into a swirl of media celebrity, hounded by paparazzi (a species born and named in the Rome of La Dolce Vita) and breathlessly interviewed on talk shows. His adventures are a blithe, surreal fable, a riff on themes Allen pursued with more aggression in Celebrity. Here Allen is happy to dabble in ridiculousness, which he pushes to a nearly sublime level in the tale of Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), Hayley’s prospective father-in-law, who possesses a marvellous singing voice (Armiliato is a world-famous operatic tenor in real life) that is subject to certain limitations.
The limitations of To Rome With Love, as frothy as the milk atop a cappuccino, are finally inseparable from its delights. Some of the scenes feel rushed and haphazardly constructed, and the dialogue frequently sounds overwritten and under-rehearsed. But this may just be to say that we are watching late-period Woody Allen. Complaining would be as superfluous — though also, perhaps, as inevitable — as psychoanalysis.
(The New York Times News Service)