If Midnight in Paris was a winning reminder of Woody’s 80s magic realism phase, his followup takes us back even further to the charming absurdism of his 70s films. But being an anthology film, To Rome With Love throws other Woody styles in the mix too.
There are four stories interwoven throughout the film, all set in the Eternal City. One features an anonymous office drone (Roberto Benigni) who is inexplicably and suddenly deemed a celebrity, chased by the paparazzi everywhere he goes. Another story, slightly less absurd and more sweet, is about a provincial couple on their honeymoon in the big city, and due to unbelievable complications sees them separated with the wife almost seduced by a soap opera star and the husband getting a lesson in love from a prostitute (Penélope Cruz).
The third story stars Woody Allen as a retired opera director who overhears his daughter’s prospective father-in-law sing in the shower, and decides to make a star out of him. The final story concerns an architect (Alec Baldwin) who meets a young architect (Jesse Eisenberg), who is probably a younger version of himself and who is seduced by the charms of his girlfriend’s friend (Ellen Page).
This story is the most substantial and the most intriguing. It is never explicitly stated that Baldwin and Eisenberg are the same character, and there are no time travel devices or changes in the time period. Baldwin’s character just appears now and then, mostly only interacting with Eisenberg but also occasionally with other characters. My interpretation is that the older architect is remembering this affair from his youth. At any rate, this story has the most interesting characters and the best dialogue. “Go on,” urges Baldwin’s character fatalistically before the affair begins, “Walk into the propeller.”
As for the other stories, the Benigni one is the most slight but probably the most entertaining. This reminded me the most of Woody’s 70s films, with no explanation, just outright wackiness. While we’re looking back, you could argue that this story and the two other slighter ones are all about fame on some level, something Celebrity dealt with much earlier, with characters famous for just being famous.
It is nice to see Woody again in the cast, though it’s a pity another repertory player, Judy Davis, isn’t given much to do besides issuing some misfired zingers. This story begins with a wordless romance over a few choice shots as his daughter and her new Roman boyfriend fall in love. I really like this kind of economical storytelling which appears more and more in the director’s latest films, with less yapping and more gorgeous visuals.
Speaking of which, it helps if you have Darius Khondji as your DOP again, as well as Rome to shoot in the summer. This film was apparently thrown together rather quickly when funding was offered from the city. Like his other European movies, it doesn’t go much deeper than the regular tourist attractions (the Trevi Fountain appears within minutes) but even this is now a recognised Woody Allen style.