Tuesday 18 September 2012

To Rome With Love

Rome, Sweet Rome

To Rome With Love
USA/Italy/Spain 2012
Written & Directed by Woody Allen
Playing at UK cinemas now

Well I’ve been watching this writer/director/performer’s work for most of my life now and I’d have to say that, although I’ve had some bumpy times with a few of his movies over the last couple of decades, this gentleman never fails to make interesting, quirky and quality works of art. Last year’s Midnight In Paris (reviewed here) was an absolutely brilliant film and To Rome With Love is no less an absorbing, and sometimes funny, experience... especially if you’re willing to accept the film on its own terms.

By that I mean it’s Woody being more experimental with his writing again. He’s always had quite strong flashes of surrealism throughout his work, starting with his early stand-up routines and then progressing into plays and films, but lately he seems to be much better about letting these elements of his work, when he chooses to go down this kind of route, creep up more subtly on the viewer and take the audience by stealth. The writing techniques he uses to do this are quite masterful and one wonders why a few more “Hollywood”, or at least “US” directors can’t study this man’s works more and understand how to misdirect the audience with a bit of style... rather than just hit them around the face with a big wet fish of obvious intentions.

I’m trying to write this review fairly spoiler free but there are two kinds of surrealism going on in this movie. One is the quirky dream-like surrealism of films like Play It Again, Sam and Annie Hall, and a similar kind of objective narrative stance from a major character on the actions of the past is visited directly in one of the story threads of To Rome With Love... which are woven in parallel, rather than together, to give the audience a sense of the city (although, I’m not sure a love letter to Rome would be so narrative heavy). The other, more dominant but less easy to detect strand of distinct surrealism is woven into the fabric of the movie itself and is presented in the way the different narrative sections fail to interact with each other.

To explain the first... when Alec Baldwin, who plays a famous architect by the name of John, leaves his friends for the afternoon to explore where he used to live in Rome back in the 80s, he can’t find his old place. But a teenager called Jack, played by Jesse Eisenberg, recognises him as he’s a fan of his work and offers to take him back to his place which is near where the architect used to live. However, as a short period of time passes with these characters and Jack’s girlfriend, it becomes obvious that there’s something else happening here. Because of the way it was written, though, the initial encounter between these two characters, to me at least, was of a completely different nature and it’s set up by the script, beautifully acted of course, to sucker punch you five or ten minutes later.

Other flights of fancy are similar to the Robin Williams character in Deconstructing Harry (a man who suddenly becomes out of focus) and start from similarly absurd premises which are then explored on their own terms. These include Roberto Benigni as an average man who suddenly achieves an instant fame for no apparent reason... and this is obviously a platform to explore both the effects of fame and success on the average man and, also, the effects of the loss of fame in someone’s life. This is, presumably, Woody’s exploration of the real trials of fame which I guess he knows very well, transplanted onto the life of someone who has done nothing to provoke that kind of attention.

Another similarly surreal story thread tells of Woody Allen’s character’s discovery that his daughter’s new fiance’s father has a strong opera voice and Woody’s attempts to market this in the classical music industry. Of course, the ultimate starting point for this thread is that people sound better singing in the shower than they do in real life... however, once Woody’s character realises this, the boundaries of credibility are slowly stretched as we are presented with a full-on solution to this most basic of dilemmas.

As for the second, less noticeable surrealistic device showcased througout the film... Well, for a while there you are expecting all the threads to weave themselves together and culminate in a series of scenes where all the myriad characters connect in some way, but this is not the case. A beautiful lady I was talking to on twitter about the movie the other night (@LauraFigas follow her here) said that the tone of the film seemed uneven to her and there were indeed some instances where my mind was grappling to tie the story strands together in a linear narrative due to expectations of the same. However, I’ve now remembered/realised that the time streams between each of the many intercut stories are inhabiting their own, individual time scales and Allen uses the fact that one story which may be set over a number of hours is being intercut with several stories which transpire over a much greater length of time, to dislocate our engagement with the temporal mechanics of the piece, which in one story inhabits two different points in time simultaneously anyway, and allows the audience to stop trying to decode the stories as one, unifying, single unit... which it certainly isn’t. For me it worked fine and my brain decided to accept that the juxtaposition of certain scenes weren’t making sense, which allowed me to enjoy the absurdity of many of the situations arising in the movie. For the lady I talked to on twitter, this manifested itself in a less satisfying manner but I can see how this movie could maintain a sense of unease within the viewer.

As usual for Mr. Allen’s movies, there’s a strong cast on hand to really make the dialogue and situations sing... including the great modern actress Penelope Cruz (glad her career has survived the fourth Pirates Of The Caribbean movie) who has less to do in this movie than she did in, say, Allen’s extraordinary work Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but who certainly has great presence playing a prostitute clothed in red (hey, I’m a red blooded male... so cut me some slack here) and gets some of the best comic lines in the movie.

And also, as you’d expect, the movie is well shot and edited and really rolls along quite quickly, even though this is one of Woody Allen’s longer movies, clocking in at almost 2 hours. The vague experimental nature of the format isn’t something you should let put you off, unless you really are somebody who prefers the closure of several cross-cut stories to be tied up in a neat, little bow. The stories each have their own, individual conclusions and this works for me, at least. My one grumble, if I had to have one, would be that the Penelope Cruz character leaves the story without any warning while all the other characters have their own ending scenes. Then again, her character is the one in the film who has less at stake, so maybe that’s why Allen chose not to leave us with one final scene of her to remember the character by (and at this point I can only hope that Mr. Allen gets hit with some kind of Fellini complex and goes the way of The White Sheik... towards his own Nights Of Cabiria project with Ms. Cruz).

To Rome With Love is another great triumph from everyone’s favourite Brooklyn neurotic... and if you are a fan of this director, you won’t want to miss out on another of his masterworks. Enjoy it for what it is... and on its own terms.


  1. Cool review! I and my Better Half found the movie very funny and well scripted.
    Rome is very beautifully photographed throughout the movie, which appealed to me very much.

    Thanks for an entertaining review.


  2. Hi Jake,

    Thanks for the vote of confidence. I've never been to Rome but it sure looked nice... although I suspect, if you're talking locations and cinematography, I prefer something like Fellini's La Dolce Vita for the mythical Rome I have stuck in my head.

    Thanks for reading.