With To Rome with Love Woody Allen puts another stamp in his filmmaking passport in a gorgeously shot homage to the art architecture and people of the historic city. Unfortunately the film's four story lines are not created equal; jam-packing the movie with so many characters leaves them all just a little underdeveloped. The most interesting is a blossoming love affair between Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend's best friend Monica (Ellen Page). While his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) is given short shrift in this scenario the most entertaining part is the ongoing dialogue between Jack and John (Alec Baldwin) an architect who remains delightfully mysterious. Is he simply revisiting his past and advising a young man amid a position in which he himself once found himself or is it more literal? It's hard to say but his brusque advice — "Go ahead walk into the propeller" — is always as entertaining as it's true.
As far as the other plot threads go we have the inevitable culture clash between American and Italian future in-laws; Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) a dorky normal guy who finds himself at the eye of an inexplicable media hurricane; and a newly married couple that get separated in the big city and end up learning all sorts of sexy lessons about themselves. Allen also wedges Penélope Cruz in as a prostitute who schools the young married man on the reality of the culture around him (turns out her clientele are just as if not more powerful than his uptight relatives who will determine the boy's professional future) . She's also there to wear a tight dress (Woody's yen for including random sex workers in his movies is well documented but remains baffling).
None of these characters is given enough screen time to be fleshed out which is frustrating as many (though not all) are quite interesting on their own and could even had their own feature-length stories. Instead of just one character who's acting as a proxy for Allen we get a dizzying array of them: Jack as the young and hungry Allen (Eisenberg's hyper-literate New York upbringing makes him a perfect surrogate); John as the middle-aged Allen full of regret and struck with Ozymandias melancholia in the face of such history; the young newlywed who has an opinion on everything; Leopoldo as the guy who finds the media attention aggravating and enjoyable in equal turns; Allen playing himself an older father who fears retirement just as much or more than he fears death. While it's an interesting idea in theory it's not handled dexterously enough to completely fit together.
To Rome With Love is a charming trifle that won't necessarily sate Woody fanatics but will please the Midnight in Paris crowd. It's still a better choice for theatergoers than plenty of other summer movie options.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Writer/director Woody Allen chose to remain behind the camera for Whatever Works employing Larry David as his muse. The Curb Your Enthusiasm star plays a cranky pessimist who becomes the initially unwilling husband to a much MUCH younger Southern girl with a father fixation. But when her conservative mother arrives all hell breaks loose as Mom tries to drive her daughter away from the old guy and toward a much younger model. But New York City has a strange effect on everyone and soon everyone in this very disparate group learns the best things in life are really “whatever works.”
WHO’S IN IT?
Forgoing the umpteenth opportunity to play the May/December romance bit again Allen turns over the starring role to David in an inspired bit of casting about which it’s simply impossible to curb your enthusiasm. David given hilarious monologues that riff on life and border on a constant stream of doomsday analysis is perfect casting in Allen’s peculiar New York world. What’s most surprising is he actually creates a three-dimensional character we grow to care about even though the flow of one-liners rarely stops. As the super-conservative Southern yokel mother-in-law Patricia Clarkson is equally at home in Allen’s universe and takes the stereotypical role into unexpected places. As the innocent ex-beauty queen who bounces into David’s life Evan Rachel Wood practically channels a backwoods Tammy persona but somehow it works well enough for us to believe she could actually fall for such a cranky old man. Also of note is Ed Begley Jr.’s terrific turn as her pious father and estranged hubby of Clarkson who shows up near the end and defies all convention.
After a sojourn abroad first to England for his expert thriller Match Point and the less successful Scoop then to Spain for last year’s delightful Vicky Cristina Barcelona Allen returns triumphantly to his New York roots for the first time since 2004’s Melinda and Melinda. Despite the absence he hasn’t lost a beat when it comes to his very singular view of the Big Apple and its inhabitants. Casting David was the masterstroke that makes this one stand out as one of the prolific Allen’s (he turns out a film a year) most consistently amusing works in some time.
Whatever Works is very slight and feels more like one of the comedian’s New Yorker short stories than a fully fleshed-out motion picture. But when you’ve got this kind of sharp dialogue and these performers it’s hard to quibble about substance.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Whatever works for you but if you’re a Woody Allen or Larry David fan it’s a must wherever you see it.
Woody Allen’s neurotic-speak works wonders coming from a New Yorker but coming from a Brit? Not so much. The British could very well be just as phobic as anyone else but they are also repressed and trying to force the neurosis out just doesn’t ring as true. Nevertheless Allen is bound and determined to film abroad these days and thus once again sets Cassandra's Dream in contemporary London where we meet two brothers struggling to better their lives financially. The more blue-collar Terry (Colin Farrell) has a gambling problem and is in debt up to his eyeballs while enterprising Ian (Ewan McGregor) dreams of leaving his family’s restaurant and moving to California with his newfound love Angela (Hayley Atwell) an ambitious actress. Their only hope is their wealthy uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) but the boys quickly find out you can’t get something for nothing. You see Uncle Howard is also in a bit of trouble and he asks his nephews to help him out of his jam--with sinister consequences. First of all Farrell and McGregor look about as related as a dog and cat. Secondly they don't seem at ease in the film partly because their characters are anxious but also partly because they don’t mesh as well with Woody Allen’s sensibilities. Farrell fares a bit better since his natural Irish tendencies towards emotional outbursts fit the character well. His Terry is the one with the conscience and murdering someone just doesn’t sit well with him. McGregor on the other hand plays Ian almost robotically saying the words with as little emotion as possible which doesn’t do Allen’s dialogue any justice. Wilkinson falls under the same category as McGregor but his character is the one most morally challenged so playing it cold sort of works. The women in Cassandra's Dream are fairly wasted including newcomer Atwell as the manipulative actress and Sally Hawkins as Terry’s sweet and concerned girlfriend. Even the boys’ mother played by veteran stage actress Clare Higgins (The Golden Compass) comes off screechy. The cast must have all been thrilled to be in a Woody Allen movie to be sure but it just seems like Allen didn’t get them. Cassandra's Dream suffers from some of the same hang-ups as Match Point. Even though many heralded that 2005 movie as Woody Allen’s return the film had the same problems namely the ill-fitting British cast. At least Match Point had an American Scarlett Johansson whom Allen could pour all his tried-and-true fixations into--the paranoia the obsessiveness and the ultimatums. But Cassandra's Dream really proves that as a filmmaker Allen has become a stick-in-the-mud. He really hasn’t changed his tune in 25 years exploring the same themes over and over again and it’s finally getting old. When his films turn dark it’s usually about how murder can corrupt the soul. Natch. Sometimes the murderers however bothered they are by their deeds get away with it; sometimes they don’t. But rarely does Allen veer from this path making Cassandra's Dream a now very stale rehash of Crimes and Misdemeanors without the benefit of having at the very least some good old-fashioned Allen-styled American-acted neurosis to back it up.
Val Waxman (Woody Allen) is an award-winning director who has jumped the shark and is now in Canada shooting deodorant commercials for nickels and dimes and well animal pelts. So when his ex-wife Ellie (Téa Leoni) and her new husband slick Hollywood studio exec Hal Yeager (Treat Williams) ask him to helm Galaxy Pictures' next big-budget movie he reluctantly signs the deal. Unfortunately the script for The City That Never Sleeps reminds Val of his own failed relationship with his son and causes him to go psychosomatically blind. Poor Val doesn't want to lose this much-needed gig and allows his agent Al (Mark Rydell) to persuade him to direct the film anyway which means keeping his blindness a secret. To make matters worse the publicity department has given a reporter from Esquire magazine the green light to cover the daily happenings on the set. Needless to say no one can do a better job than Allen of talking and gesticulating to the air walking into large objects and falling off sets.
Nervous and jittery like most of his characters Woody Allen is hilarious as Val and he makes the character's blindness completely believable. Allen's performance is priceless especially in the scenes where he is out with Ellie; he tries his best to have a professional discussion with her but constantly blurts out these Turrets-like comments about their breakup. Téa Leoni (Jurassic Park III) is superb and very natural in the role of Ellie--she has come such a long way since her short-lived 1995 television series The Naked Truth. Treat Williams (Venomous) and George Hamilton (Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles) are perfectly cast as glossy Hollywood tycoons while Mark Rydell (Intersection) personifies perfectly the loyal entertainment agent. Will & Grace's Debra Messing struts her big screen skills with her portrayal of Lori the ditzy aspiring actress and Val's live-in girlfriend but much like sultry Tiffani Thiessen's (The Ladies Man) part her role is rather small.
Allen has written a clever satire of Hollywood films and what goes on behind the scenes. When his character Val loses his vision and exclaims that he will not be able to direct the film his agent Al responds "Have you seen some of the pictures out there?" The rest of the film never lets up down to the film's crowd-pleasing "Hollywood Ending." There are quick-witted jabs at everyone and everything especially West Coast culture. The film even pokes fun at itself sometimes: Messing's character Lori leaves for an extended stay at a fitness spa early on in the film and when she finally returns Ellie comments "I forgot about her." Well so had we all. Allen also drops a lot of little references that will leave you wondering. For example his character mentions that when his first wife left him she changed their son's name. (Wasn't Seamus Allen's real life son with Mia Farrow once called Satchel?) Although there are some preachy moments including a dinner party scene where the characters discuss their favorite Hitchcock film the film is witty and entertaining.