I've said it before and no doubt (hopefully) I'll say it many times again: I have a lot of time and a heightened degree of tolerance for Woody Allen films. Over the last ten to twenty years, the naysayers have been proclaiming (with the exception that proves the rule, last year's "Midnight in Paris") that his latest movie is his 'worst one ever'. I can not hope to convince the sceptics, but I know in my heart that his legion of faithful fans perseveres.
His latest film after a run of love letters to London, Barcelona, and Paris, is of course set in the Eternal City, and Allen marks the occasion by giving us beautiful panoramic views many steps above a mere travelogue and also manages to incorporate a medley of Italian musical favourites from "Volare" and "That's Amore" through grand opera. The film is some twenty minutes longer than his average, uses a vast army of generally unknown Italian actors, and even has the audacity to present a good proportion of the flick in Italian with (horror) subtitles -- which in itself is enough to put off the Allen-knockers. While the film is certainly not amongst his very best, it is still highly entertaining and provides the requisite dose of laughs, particularly when Allen's own character is on screen.
There are four separate story-lines, each vaguely about love in its many forms, that unexpectedly do not intertwine. Two of these are completely in Italian and two are in English. The main tale concerns Allen as a retired opera director who travels to Rome with his psychiatrist wife Judy Davis (never missing an opportunity to throw little digs at Allen's various neuroses) to meet the parents of the left-wing lawyer whom their beloved daughter, Alison Pill, has met, fallen in love with, and plans to marry. They live in the apartment behind his father's mortuary -- occasioning a run of gags from Allen regarding both his fear of flying and his fear of death. The meeting is not going too well until Allen hears the magnificent tenor of the mortician as he sings in the shower. He becomes obsessed with the idea of bringing this great talent to an appreciative audience, but when he discovers that his reluctant discovery can not sing outside this familiar setting, he stages an opera where every scene has his lead singing from a movable shower stall. This is the same director who once staged an opera with the cast dressed as white mice! While the undertaker receives glowing reviews, impresario Allen is described as an imbecile - which, since he speaks no Italian, he takes as a glowing compliment. While the gag may have been done before somewhere, these scenes are hilarious.
The second American story was to me the least satisfactory, although it had its moments. Jesse Eisenberg is an architectural student living in Rome with girlfriend Greta Gerwig (a current critic's darling who normally raises my hackles, but who is fine in a subdued role here); her neurotic friend Ellen Page comes to stay and prepares to win away Eisenberg's affections with her non too subtle mix of pseudo-intellectual pretensions and make-believe sexuality. Alec Baldwin, an older successful architect whom Eisenberg meets, initially as a real character, morphs into a fly on the wall proffering advice and admonitions to Eisenberg who has become the embodiment of his younger self. A cute idea, but one that would have worked better if the usually likeable Page wasn't so annoying here.
The first of the two Italian story is a semi-homage to Fellini's "The White Sheik" where a provincial couple (they claim to be from Pordenone, home of a famous silent film festival) have come for their honeymoon. He is to meet some influential cousins who will help his career prospects. While she goes out and becomes more and more lost looking for a hairdresser, he is mistaken for a client of belle du jour Penelope Cruz, bursting out of her skimpy red dress, who has been gifted an afternoon of her attentions. In burst his relatives and he tries hopelessly to pass her off as his wife. Meanwhile his real wife has fallen in with a film crew making a movie with one of her many film idols and she is tempted into his hotel bedroom by his cajoling flattery. Both of them manage to be unfaithful to the other, in not necessarily expected ways, and decide in the end to return to their boring small-town life.
The second and possibly more successful Italian strand stars Roberto Benigni who can be one of the most annoying screen clowns of our era. However his role here fitted him like a glove and had some piercing comments to make about the nature of celebrity. He is your average Joe jobsworth, living a quiet life with his dowdy wife and two children. Out of the blue and for no discernible reason, he leaves his house one day to a crowd of photographers and interviewers who seem determined to follow him everywhere and hang on his every word as something of profound wisdom. What did he eat for breakfast? What kind of bread? Was it toasted? Does he wear boxer shorts? and so on, as if these replies would seal the fate of the world. At first he shrinks from this unwanted attention and the glittering invitations he receives, to say nothing of the hordes of glamorous females who suddenly crave his body, but he soon takes it all for granted. Then one morning his crowd of admirers spot another nonentity in the road and switch their attentions to him. Having tasted undeserved fame, Benigni soon misses all the attention and his usually hyper personality works well in this parable on the emptiness of modern-day celebrity.
Carry on making these confections, Woody! Long may you wave! I know I am not alone in waiting to discover how you next will tickle our funny bone.