Sunday, September 09, 2012

From Woody, with Love


(Published in City Express, The New Sunday Express, on 8 September 2012)

Cast: Woody Allen, Roberto Benigni, Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Alessandro Tiberian, Alessandra Mastronardi
Director: Woody Allen
Rating: 3.5 stars
Some of us were born into the cult of Woody Allen. We grew up with the goofy-looking guy whose wit captivated an older cousin or parent or uncle, from whom we inherited this awe of all things Woody.
It’s quite remarkable how he can produce film after film, year after year, choose whatever setting he wants, and yet make us relate to them in a personal way. In his latest offering, To Rome with Love, we follow four different stories that just about graze each other, largely because they’re all set in Rome.
Allen himself stars, as usual, in one of these stories. He plays retired opera-director Jerry, on a visit to Rome with his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis). What promises to be an unpleasant tour – what encounter with the in-laws can be anything but, right? – turns into something completely different, courtesy a guest appearance by Fabio Armiliato. Armiliato plays the man with the kink this time, and his odd problem makes for a thoroughly delightful story.
The European flavour comes through most powerfully in a story focusing on newlyweds (played by Alessandro Tiberian and Alessandra Mastronardi) who are visiting the groom’s family. An accidental encounter, a case of mistaken identity, and an unfortunate coincidence set us thinking about the twin ideas of fate and temptation. Can we resist one with the other? What does ‘meant-to-be’ really mean? And when do you know you’re making a compromise?
It’s almost the same concept that seeps into the story of Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sally (Greta Gerwig), a young couple based in Rome, where he’s pursuing his dreams. This story plays on trust, though. Can you really love someone enough to trust that person? And does trust always beget trust? Alec Baldwin plays a role in this story that seems to suit him, as most of his roles do, but doesn’t really contribute much to the film.
The strand starring Roberto Benigni as Leopoldo toys with the idea of fifteen-minutes-of-fame. While Benigni will always have a special place in the cinematic imagination of everyone who has watched and loved Life is Beautiful, it is the love of Benigni and not of Leopoldo that makes this character appealing.
Throughout the film, the viewer is called upon to remember that he or she is watching a Woody Allen movie – surprise, surprise – and that it is set in Italy. If you can take the one-liners and the touristy tribute to Italian music, you’ll enjoy the ride.
The Verdict: Four stories nudge slightly different questions in the viewer, who has to do most of the hard work in elevating this Woody Allen movie to thoughtful cinema.

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