Writer-director Woody Allen, looking rather dapper at 76, has cast himself in one of his movies for the first time in years (as a Woody-esque retired opera director) in four stories (thematically linked) about seizing the day. All the main characters (Americans and Italians) are frustrated, stuck in place, and the movie suggests (by plotline) that only by risking can one live: wholly to live is to choose and accept, however nervously. In this case, a middle-aged architect (Alec Baldwin), a frustrated opera-singing mortician (Fabio Armiliato), an upscale call-girl (Penelope Cruz), a neurotic actress (Ellen Page, spot-on), a young ingenuous architect (Jesse Eisenberg), and an ordinary Roman citizen (Roberto Benigni) destined for mysterious celebrity. All these recognize, finally, choices they must make to alleviate, to re-fire passion of every kind.
“You equate retirement with death,” Woody’s wife (Judy Davis), a shrink, tells him. And so he does; but when he comes up with a new hare-brained music scheme (which shall be nameless here), he comes alive. When Eisenberg is tempted away from his girlfriend by unstable Page, he finds himself coming a bit alive himself, even when his mentor (Baldwin, who has yearned to impart his life-lore) warns him of possible trouble.
Benigni, practically a cipher, is singled out, reality TV-show like, for instant fame, his boredom inflates him, but all does not go well, and he begins to see that obscurity has its rewards. The temptations here in the Eternal City? Infidelity, fame, power, recognition. And the great thing in Rome: Easy access to “good” restaurants.
Let’s rewind and look at the film’s beginning: After an homage to Rome’s infamous bad traffic, a genial traffic cop addresses us to introduce our main characters (with some helpful exposition), but we never see him again until he closes the film 90 minutes later. During that time we have had generous visual slices of Rome, two vignettes done in Italian, a most bizarre production of Pagliacci, (or at least some of it).
As in Midnight in Paris, director Allen’s cinematographer is the wondrous Darius Khondji, whose fluid camera work unites the four, non-contiguous stories with the somewhat stylized Roman ochres, golds, and leafy greens of the city. The camera-work is fast and clever, with beautifully-designed close-ups, circular pans, and telling glimpses of Roman life–the traffic about which the cop-narrator alluded: the Eternal City is alive, messy but vibrant.
Two performances stand out: Ellen Page’s satiric turn as a pretentious man-stealer, hypocritical and shallow. We all have such a character in our pasts, a creature whose charms are toxic and expert. She can fool any man, steal any man, and turn on a dime from loving to completely narcissistic. (She’s also capable of fooling movie audiences.)
Then there’s Alec Baldwin, about whose character there’s a big surprise (not to be mentioned here), but whose cynical knowledge of life is often on-the-money–and into his mentee Eisenberg’s unconscious he manages to insinuate itself.
To Rome with Love, filled with Italian tunes, is sneakier and slyer than it appears, bright on the surface, but here and there spotted darkly on the underside. Most of these characters find they have been wasting their time, needing to move on . . . because now there is no time to waste, even in the Eternal City.