Being a man of few ideas, I've emphasized in every review I've written of a Woody Allen movie the quality of sameness that pervades all his work.
There, I've just done it again.
But how do you get away from it? Maybe I should be asking what that sameness does for his style of storytelling. Because it clearly works for him, the sameness--the exact same credit scroll, the same use of (similar) music, the same archetypal characters, the unchanging character of Woody himself in most films (and a dead-ringer stand-in where he remains behind the camera), the same self-conscious urban setting. These things obviously represent a comfort zone for him and free him to focus his energies on other things.
This is what I spent much of his latest film, To Rome With Love, chewing on: how does he get away with such a degree of sameness and predictability? How does he qualify as a great filmmaker with such a restricted palette, especially when he's painted a whole boatload of pictures with that palette? I may not understand it, but his formula certainly seems to work: niche player or not, the theater was full for a 4:30 PM showing yesterday (admittedly, in probably the most educated part of Louisville).
To Rome With Love tells several simultaneous tales, each unfolding in the city over (I guess?) a couple days:
- A young American woman (Allison Pill) is in Rome for a summer and meets an Italian man. They fall in love and plan to marry.
- The young woman's parents (Allen and Judy Davis) fly over to visit their daughter and meet their future son-in-law. Woody is his usual stammering mote of friction in the world.
- The son-in-law's father is a mortician who sings brilliantly in the shower. Allen's character, who is retired as an opera impresario, insists upon making a career for the closeted singer (actual opera star Fabio Armiliato), despite the resistance of the singer himself and the rest of his family. This is the funniest thread in the film--and the most delightfully absurd.
- Another young American couple are living in Rome (Greta Gerwig and Jesse Eisenberg), and the woman's best friend (Ellen Page) comes to live with them, throwing their lives in turmoil. Eisenberg's character is advised, inexplicably, in all this by a magically-present Alec Baldwin, who plays a kind of angel on the man's shoulder (though he seems variably to be visible / audible to the others). Another delightful suspension of reality.
- An unassuming middle-aged Roman man (Roberto Benigni) finds himself one morning, for no reason whatsoever, besieged by cameras and reporters and is whisked into a life of mega-stardom and then dropped exactly as precipitously.
- A young newly-married Italian couple arrives in Rome from a small town intent on making their future. He has a job offer with a family business, and she is eager to be in the big city. But their situation turns into one comic meltdown after another.
There is some overlap between some of the plot lines, while others stand alone. Each story line has its dollop of whimsy, sometimes staggering almost into farce (Allen is a comic, after all), and his trademark humor and timing remain quite intact notwithstanding his 76 years. Despite the plot differences, To Rome With Love could be a companion piece to Midnight In Paris, the fugue to go with the former's prelude. It looks the same (of course), has the same pacing and feel, and spends much screen time lauding the beauty and magic of the Eternal City just as Owen Wilson waxes rhapsodic about Paris so often in Midnight In Paris. But it sounds a trifle phoned-in this time. There's not much depth to any of the characters, even if there doesn't need to be for a quietly-satisfying comedy. But without this, there is nothing to touch the profound; it's just an entertainment.
After a career resolutely set in New York City, Mr. Allen seems to be spending his golden years discovering the charms of Europe. I understand that no one who works with such a complex and technical art form can hit a home run with every at-bat, especially if he comes up to bat so often. And that's fine; it's still a fine entertainment and a worthy addition to his catalog.