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.
Told in a sometimes-confusing collection of flashbacks and flash forwards La Vie en Rose traces the beloved French singer's troubled life from her early years in her grandmother's Normandy brothel to her death at age 47 as a frail morphine-addicted wreck. Born Edith Giovanna Gassion in 1915 Paris Piaf first won fans as a young street performer. Years later when she was a gamine girl just out of her teens she was discovered by Louis Leplée (Gerard Depardieu) who helped launch her career as a cabaret chanteuse and gave her the nickname that would stick with her for life: "Piaf " slang for "sparrow." She went on to worldwide success but her personal life remained unstable with weaknesses for drinking and drugs eventually blossoming into full-blown addiction after the tragic death of her one true love boxer Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins). From start to finish La Vie en Rose is Marion Cotillard's movie. The two young actresses who portray Piaf as a child (Manon Chevallier and Pauline Burlet) do a good job paving the way--Burlet is particularly soulful and touching--but once Cotillard takes over Piaf really comes to life. And does she ever. Like Judy Davis in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows Cotillard inhabits her character so fully that it's hard to believe you're not watching Piaf herself. Brazen and shy brash and girlish Cotillard's Piaf is a study in contradictions and vulnerability. Her outspoken confidence masks a deep-seated fear of loneliness--which along with her passion for singing and her ardor for Cerdan were the ruling emotions of her life. The way that Cotillard conveys the havoc that those emotions wreaked on Piaf's life is sometimes showy but always heartfelt. Opting for nonlinear storytelling in a biopic is a bold choice--and one that doesn't quite work for La Vie en Rose. Just when you're starting to get a handle on the sequence of events that led to Piaf's sadly premature death a new wrinkle arises that leaves you doing some quick timeline math (did the car crash come before or after the collapse on stage? when exactly did she first start taking morphine?)--which ends up distancing you from both Piaf and her story. The Little Sparrow remains somewhat of an enigma throughout the movie no matter how many melodramatic outbursts she has or drunken confessions she makes. Happily the music is fantastic--how could it not be with Piaf's classic songs mingling with the cabaret smoke and ringing out in the grand music halls? It's just too bad that La Vie en Rose isn't as affecting as the ballad it's named for.