At times it looked as likely as squeezing blood from a stone, but Woody Allen’s creative juices can still flow — and flow freely, without fussiness or solemnity, as in his wonderfully buoyant, overlapping omnibus comedy To Rome With Love. At 76, he’s working compulsively fast, death ever closer on his heels, and cutting through the inessentials, flouting naturalism and following his always-great absurdist instincts to their illogical (but resonant) ends. He portrays Rome as a city of roundabouts, from the traffic circle that opens the film to the Coliseum to the piazzas with their seemingly endless points of entry. It’s a city that’s ancient and sublime and yet farce is intrinsic to it. And it’s the perfect stage for Allen’s peculiar inner world — a place where men will always long for women they can’t have, where the women they do have undermine them, where paparazzi swarm out of nowhere on the latest undeserving celebrities, where fame is both a blessing and a curse.
Kudos to Allen’s casting directors, Patricia Kerrigan DiCerto, Beatrice Kruger, and longtime associate Juliet Taylor for once more getting him the hippest actors of the day, all evidently thrilled to work for near scale. The always-winning stammerer Jesse Eisenberg is an American who thinks he’s fine and dandy with a girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) who’s just too stable, at which point her actress friend (Ellen Page) arrives to hypnotize him with her hyperliterate stream of references and stories about sexual escapades — another tantalizing neurotic shiksa goddess, borderline untouchable the way girlfriends’ gal pals or sisters will be. Allen provides him with a fantasy companion, a suave older man (Alec Baldwin) who warns him he’s “walking into a propeller.” But walk this boy-man does because in Allen’s sex-charged dreams he has to. What’s wonderfully surreal about Baldwin’s scenes is that Allen doesn’t bother to make him invisible to other characters. They listen to his acid commentary and continue on their ridiculous tracks.
Eisenberg is standing in for the young Allen, of course, and Baldwin for the middle-aged Allen, and lo and behold Allen himself is on hand as a man his own age: a retired semi-successful opera director married to a killjoy played by Judy Davis, in Rome to see his fresh-faced daughter (Alison Pill) and meet her Italian beau (Flavio Parenti). Like much of To Rome With Love, the Allen subplot has a stream-of-consciousness quality, as if outlandish ideas just jumped out of his pen. His character hears the beau’s mortician father (tenor Fabio Armiliato) singing opera — gloriously — in the shower and becomes dead-set on building a production around this hesitant man with his discouraging wife. To tell you where this leads would be criminal, but the sequence builds to the perfect preposterous punch line and with the added benefit of thrilling music.
I never thought I could bear to watch Roberto Benigni again, but Allen has cast him as a painfully ordinary man, a non-exhibitionist who becomes a celebrity literally at random. Benigni’s rubber face is a hoot when stricken, pure commedia dell’arte, and he uses his loose-limbed body to recoil from the hordes with a clown’s grace. A plot that features a husband, his lost young wife, his pious family that has never met her, a luscious prostitute (Penélope Cruz) in the wrong place, a movie star, and a burglar is full of stock characters, yet Allen’s juggling of them is so assured and his plotting so intricate it’s hard not to marvel at it. I marveled.
I was blissed out during much of To Rome With Love, but I have to acknowledge its creepy side. Allen’s actresses are open-faced and nubile and costumed and shot to make them ripe sexual objects — he wants them, boy he wants them, and he can’t have them. His men get off the hook, but the denouements are defeatist, curdled. It’s not the dark, pessimistic core of Allen’s comedy I object to. It’s the casualness of the hopelessness, the complacency of it, the buildup to a shrug. But I’m in awe of the fact that he can hold that view and still have surprises in him.