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.
In Larry Crowne Tom Hanks plays the title character an affable middle-aged floor manager at a big box department store who loses his job because he never went to college. Lacking a secondary income source (his wife divorced him a few years prior) and underwater on his mortgage he sets out to find new employment but is met with universal rejection. If any of these developments affect him in any significant way you can scarcely tell from his countenance: A plaintive drive home and the occasional watering of the eyes are the only indications of any kind of turmoil within.
All of which hints that Larry Crowne which Hanks also directed and co-wrote (with Nia Vardalos) might be one of those films in which a repressed and emotionally stunted individual gradually comes to face the pain he’s buried enjoys an epiphany or two and lets go of it all in a grand (and presumably Oscar-worthy) catharsis. (That or he shoots up a Dairy Queen.) Only it isn’t. It’s a breezy genial comedy about a guy who enrolls in a community college joins a crew of scooter-riders and hits it off with his speech teacher.
The teacher Mercedes (Julia Roberts) is everything Larry isn’t: dry cynical tired. She’s lost her passion for education and is mired in a toxic marriage with a noxious layabout (Bryan Cranston) whose novel-writing efforts are really just a cover for an internet porn obsession. There’s no reason the two should connect romantically other than the fact that he’s Tom Hanks and she’s Julia Roberts. This appraisal might as well extend to the film as a whole which skates by lazily on the charm and charisma of its two stars never deigning to proffer anything more substantial than their adorable mugs.
Among a rote and forgettable assemblage of supporting characters the only one who manages to register at all is Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) a coquettish free-spirited fellow-student who makes Larry her personal project re-arranging his living room upgrading his wardrobe and coaxing him to be more adventurous. Why she bothers to do any of this is never explained. Is she luring him into a shady business scheme? Is she the recruiter for an apocalyptic cult? An insatiable schlub fetish perhaps? Without any discernible motive we’re left to assume that she takes to him simply because he’s Tom Hanks. I mean who wouldn’t want to ride scooters with Tom Hanks? (I’ll tell you who: Al Qaida.)
Larry Crowne is a film I desperately wanted to like. Certainly its central message of perseverance and optimism in the face of hardship is a noble one. But aside from its two stars a few laughs and a handful of endearing moments there’s precious little to it. By the end of the film I felt like I barely knew any of these people despite having spent the last 90 minutes with them. Nor did I particularly want to know them. Except for Tom and Julia of course. Aren’t they just wonderful?
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In the summer of 1977 disgraced former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) sat down with British TV talk show host and interviewer David Frost (Michael Sheen) for a series of interviews that Nixon hoped would resuscitate his Watergate-tarnished image and Frost hoped would lift his own career to another level. While it made for good TV at the time it certainly didn’t seem likely fodder for a hit Broadway play and now a major motion picture. Peter Morgan (The Queen) wrote the play and adapted it for the screen turning it into a riveting cat-and-mouse game between these two made-for-television adversaries. Director Ron Howard emphasizes the behind the scenes machinations and all the negotiations between both camps. The off-camera material is priceless based in large part on speculative research. Whatever the final truth of the story the film gains its real power from it’s the telling. Ron Howard turns to the two original stage stars of Frost/Nixon -- a wise casting decision that almost never happens in Hollywood. It’s true everyone including Warren Beatty reportedly wanted to play Nixon but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Langella in recreating his Tony-winning interpretation of the infamous Tricky Dick. He has all of Nixon’s mannerisms vulnerabilities and caginess down pat. Sheen certainly captures the confident nature of Frost but also his insecurities and the realization that this whole enterprise is one big roll of the dice. And two actors work in perfect concert with one another. Supporting roles are well played including standouts Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s trusted Chief of Staff Jack Brennan and a hilarious Toby Jones aping the inimitable book agent Swifty Lazar. As key Frost aides and researchers Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell do a nice job as kind of the Greek chorus to the situation. On the surface Ron Howard -- better known for his large scale Hollywood productions like The Da Vinci Code and Apollo 13 -- doesn’t seem the right fit for this smaller scale drama but his approach transfers what could have been a flat Broadway screen into a highly cinematic and stimulating two hours. He captures the rhythms of this chess match perfectly and chooses camera angles that catch the sweat behind the cool facades of his two principals. Special mention should go to the beautiful nuanced work of his cinematographer Salvatore Totino. Howard is such a gifted filmmaker he makes it all seem effortless easily coaxing two equally superb performances from Langella and Sheen. Frost/Nixon is a first class achievement.