The Eternal Absurdity of Woody Allen

“To Rome With Love” is a sugar-free neurotic comedy

Rating: R

Grade: A-

What an amazing run Woody Allen has enjoyed over the last decade or so? Actually, during the last twenty years, Allen’s highlight reel includes “Husbands and Wives,” “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” “Bullets Over Broadway,” “Mighty Aphrodite,” “Sweet and Lowdown,” “Melinda and Melinda,” “Match Point,” “Cassandra’s Dream,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” and “Midnight in Paris.”

With “Midnight in Paris,” Allen earned an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (which goes along with his two other screenplay Oscars – for “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters” – and the Best Director Oscar for “Annie Hall”), which has led critics to marvel at this renaissance, one we’ve come to associate with a period that has found him wandering far from his native New York. His signature brand of Big Apple neuroses seems to contrast nicely with the various European destinations he has pinpointed on his comedic travelogue.

And the next stop, “To Rome With Love,” finds Allen cruising through the Eternal City, in a madcap fantasy of mis-direction, mis-interpretation, and almost missed opportunities for a collection of characters whose lives and misadventures don’t intersect. Allen juggles a nice handful of zany situations where love and passion drive people to do exactly the wrong things at the wrong times, but by maintaining a healthy degree of separation, he ends up showcasing the eternal absurdity of life and love.

A lost American tourist (Alison Pill) bumps into a young handsome Italian (Flavio Parenti) and seemingly before their first kiss, they are destined for the altar, although not before a kooky musical collaboration between their fathers (Allen and famed Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato, making his film debut) threatens to derail the whole affair. An middle-class Everyman (Roberto Benigni) wakes up one morning and discovers that he, inexplicably, has become a celebrity and must deal with accompanying perks of fame as well as the complete loss of privacy. A successful American architect (Alec Baldwin) encounters a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) who he imagines is following in his disastrous romantic footsteps, slowly falling for an actress (Ellen Page) who happens to be the best friend of his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig). And, last but not least, a newly married couple (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) from outside the city venture in, to impress the husband’s family and establish themselves in the family business, but get separated and struggle with temptations at every turn.

“To Rome,” at times, feels like an impossible odyssey, difficult to determine whether it is rooted in reality or fantasy. Unlike “Midnight in Paris,” there is no device to signal the shift from the real to that other place – and it should be noted that the “other” could be an avant garde alternative, a Bravo-based celebrity factory, the nostalgic mind of an aging boomer, or an urban moral rabbit hole. The only obvious connection between these comedic dreamscapes is the city and its sense of eternal absurdity. Allen wants us to see that in life, anything can happen, especially among the ruins of Rome. The bizarre and the loopy lie just beneath the surface or around the next corner just past that plaza up ahead, waiting to be revealed.

No discussion of a Woody Allen film is ever complete without an analysis of the efforts of his stand-in for that particular project and “To Rome,” thanks to its multiple storylines, boasts a virtual cavalcade of Allen impersonations, often more than one in a story segment. Intriguingly, the young women, Page and Pill, provide the most sure-footed takes on Allen’s recognizable nebbishness and the breathless way his mind seems to race to beat the worry escaping from his mouth. In fact, they are even better than the master himself, although he shouldn’t feel the need to give up appearing onscreen. These instances of the eternal and the absurd are borne from him, and “To Rome With Love” is a reminder of the unbearable lightness of his being.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com

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