Sony // 2012 // 112 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 21st, 2013
A movie as incredible as Rome itself.
"I am here to fulfill your dreams."
"Rome," an onscreen narrator informs us, "is full of stories." We get the opportunity to witness four of this flavorful city's stories in Woody Allen's To Rome with Love:
The story of a young man (Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network) who begins to fall for a young woman (Ellen Page, The Social Network) despite the wise cautions of a mysterious (and perhaps imaginary) older man (Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock).
The story of a retired opera director (Woody Allen, Bananas) who discovers a humble Italian mortician (real-life opera star Fabio Armiliato) with an incredible voice. The only problem? The man only sings well when he's in the shower.
The story of two newlyweds (Allesandro Tiberi, Boris; Allesandra Mastronardi, Titanic: Blood and Steel) who find themselves accidentally separated and respectively seduced by a gorgeous prostitute (Penelope Cruz, Volver) and a famous movie star (Antonio Albanese, Days and Clouds).
The story of an ordinary man (Roberto Benigni, Son of the Pink Panther) who suddenly becomes a celebrity for no particular reason.
Woody Allen experienced something of a resurgence in 2011, delivering the biggest box office hit of his career in the form of Midnight in Paris. Would Allen be able to capitalize on the success of that much-beloved film and get a hot streak going? Of course not, because that's not Allen's way. Time after time throughout his career (especially in recent years), Allen has followed a major critical and/or commercial success with a movie which many regard as a disappointment. Annie Hall was followed by Interiors. Radio Days was followed by September. Crimes and Misdemeanors was followed by Alice. Match Point was followed by Scoop. You get the idea. Still, the number of Allen films which don't at least qualify as mild pleasures are few and far between, and To Rome with Love is a perfectly pleasant way to pass 111 minutes.
The construction of the film is very loose, as Allen wanders between the quartet of stories without establishing any particular sort of structure. The tales don't really interconnect with each other (save for the fact that they're all set in Rome), they don't take place within the same period of time (some unfold over a matter of hours; others over a matter of months) and they don't all cover the same thematic territory. Still, there's a certain free-flowing elegance to the manner in which these tales are doled out bit by bit, as Allen hits some emotional and comic crescendos in satisfying fashion. It's not exactly Cloud Atlas, but it works.
The richest of the stories is Eisenberg's tale, in part because it's both the most heartfelt of Allen's offerings. It's difficult to tell whether Baldwin's character is some sort of fictional creation or whether Eisenberg is just a product of Baldwin's imagination, but either way the line between reality and fantasy is quite tenuous. In this tale, Ellen Page plays a girl who initially seems endlessly charming but nonetheless comes with a whole lot of invisible baggage. Baldwin sees right through her (perhaps because he was once with someone just like her) and earnestly tries to steer Eisenberg in the right direction, but Eisenberg can't help but follow his heart. Even though Baldwin sees the tragedy of Eisenberg's decisions, he can't help but sympathize with the lovestruck young lad. For the most part, Baldwin's character can only be seen and heard by Eisenberg, but every now and then Page will jump in to defend herself against some of Baldwin's harsher accusations (meanwhile, Eisenberg's rightfully-concerned girlfriend Greta Gerwig remains oblivious to everything). It's creative, funny and moving; the sort of tale which probably could have sustained its own feature-length film.
The other three stories are all modest fun and tend to embrace Allen's sillier side. The most entertaining of the remaining tales is the one featuring Allen himself, as it builds to the sort of wonderfully ridiculous punchline that Allen delivered on a regular basis back in his "earlier, funnier" days. The story of the young newlyweds who find themselves facing separate temptations is a fun little slice of Ophuls-style romantic comedy, even if it doesn't come up with much of an ending. The Benigni tale is the thinnest and most predictable of the bunch, but at least Benigni himself is actually quite good. His bewilderment at his newfound stardom carries the thin premise a pretty long way, and the final punchline nearly justifies the overlong set-up. The characters all seem reasonably well-defined despite limited screen time, largely because Allen mostly asks everyone involved to play the sort of characters they generally play: Eisenberg is a young, smart neurotic guy, Allen is an old, smart, neurotic guy, Page is chatty and charming, Cruz is warm and alluring, Baldwin is weary and witty and Benigni is exceptionally Benigni-esque.
Rome itself is a pretty significant character as well, as Allen does a fine job of capturing the romantic flavor of his wonderful location. There are a few moments in which he simply lets his camera wander around and observe the bustling beauty surrounding the assorted characters, as if the film itself can't help but be distracted by its setting. The film's final scene (which features a large Italian band performing "Volare") puts an intoxicatingly celebratory bow on the whole affair.
To Rome with Love (Blu-ray) has received an absolutely gorgeous 1080p/1.78:1 transfer which really highlights the wonderful atmosphere of the film. Allen has never been given much credit for his visual skills, but in recent times he's been developing quite a knack for quietly emphasizing his locations. Detail is superb, color are bright and vibrant and depth is tremendous. It's a great-looking flick. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track has a few standout moments (the opera sequences in particular come to mind), but for the most part this is a simple, dialogue-driven track. Don't expect anything earth-shattering, but it gets the job done. Supplements are limited to a brief making-of featurette (which is a lot by Allen's usual standards).
To Rome with Love is minor Allen, but it never aspires to be anything more than that. It's a perfectly savory afternoon snack of a movie. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated R