It's almost surprising to see him back on the screen in "To Rome with Love," back being the fussy, fidgety, idiosyncratic guy we remember all the way back to "Bananas" and "Take the Money and Run." This time, he's Jerry, a retired opera director who's always gotten slammed for his outrageous staging choices such as "Rigoletto" with everybody dressed as white mice and a whole "Tosca" inside a phone booth. Jerry and his wife, an edgy psychiatrist named Phyllis (Judy Davis), have come to Rome to meet their daughter's new Italian fiance, one Michelangelo, whose dad, otherwise a mortician, loves to sing opera in the shower. Jerry becomes somewhat obsessed with getting the singing mortician (played by tenor Fabio Armiliato) onto the stage in "Pagliacci," even if he has to put a rolling shower center stage and keep his leading man naked, wet and soapy to be able to perform.
That opera/shower plotline is one of four in "To Rome with Love," so it's not like Woody gave himself the leading role in the film. Instead, he has a light, frothy (perhaps bubbly is a better word) story, played completely for laughs, that serves him and the movie well, reminding us of the days when he was such a charming on-screen presence. Davis is just right as his comic foil, and Alison Pill is lovely as their daughter, even if it seems unlikely she could've come from that gene pool.
"To Rome with Love" focuses on the fantasy aspects of its central city, with Roberto Benigni also in a fanciful plot thread about a man who suddenly and inexplicably becomes a celebrity, swarmed by paparazzi, pursued by beautiful women, chauffeured and pampered and treated like royalty. It makes no sense, of course, but it works just fine as a commentary on fame, as slight as it (and Benigni) are.
The Benigni piece and the third plotline, about a young, naive couple of newlyweds from the country who fall into romantic hijinks with strangers, are offered in Italian with some subtitles, so don't be surprised if you can speak a few words by the time you get home. "Bella," "Ecco" and "Non lo so" were popping up all over the place. My husband also noticed that boxer shorts is "boxer" since Benigni's character gets asked the boxers or briefs question during his flirtation with fame.
That third story, about the wide-eyed small-town kids trying to navigate the big city, was my least favorite of the four, with its hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (Penelope Cruz) trope not working for me at all. Anna, the call girl, pretends to be the boy's wife when she mistakenly shows up in his hotel room in her skin-tight red dress and stilettos just as his stodgy Roman relatives arrive to meet him. For one thing, Woody needs to give up o the hookers already. Plus it seems strange that the innocent boy gets hottie Penelope Cruz for his sexual adventure, while the girl has to make do with a bald, chubby guy who looks a bit like the Italian version of George Costanza. Even without that disconnect, the tone of it is all too obvious and farcical for me. As well as kind of unpleasant.
It's the fourth story that comes off the the deepest and most interesting, mostly because of Alec Baldwin, who gives his mysterious character, an architect who is remembering the time he spent in Rome as a youth, a softness and contemplative quality that set him apart. He tries to steer Jesse Eisenberg, a younger version of him, away from a stupid but inevitable hook-up with his girlfriend's exotic friend, an actress with a spiky, narcissistic sexual energy. Eisenberg comes close to Woody Allen's young persona, with his intellectual pretensions and befuddled romantic yearnings, even though Baldwin's character is older and wiser in ways Allen never seemed to reach as an actor. It's all very intriguing, with good performances from Baldwin, Eisenberg, and Greta Gerwig as the girlfriend who gets lost in the shuffle. I wasn't as happy with Ellen Page as Monica, the irresistible object of desire. Page is too whiny, too nasal, and not really all that interesting. Maybe Penelope Cruz should've tried this role, with the stereotypical call girl role excised from the movie altogether.
"To Rome with Love" has one more showing at the Normal Theater, tonight at 7 pm. It's a bargain at $6, plus soda and popcorn are only a dollar each.
So, no, I didn't love it as much as I loved "Midnight in Paris" and its intoxicating romanticism. This one steers closer to broad comedy, which is not as close to my heart. But that's okay, Woody. This one is a solid B and worth its 112 minutes in the theater. And, after all, we'll always have "Paris."