Monday, 30 November -0001


A compendium of absurd and surreal stories charm in a Woody Allen classic

Written by Barry Norman
barry-normanBWWoody Allen is the Marmite of the movies. You either love him or loathe him. For the most part – though not all the time – I fall into the former category. Allen at his best is still the wittiest, cleverest comedy film-maker around but of late, as he has been touring Europe for inspiration, he has not always been at his best.

The English Match Point was vaguely embarrassing and the Spanish Vicky Christina Barcelona was no more than so-so. But with Midnight In Paris he was back on top form and To Rome With Love, though not quite so good, has some vintage Allen moments.

It's a compendium of four intercut, although not interwoven, stories set in what, as he reminds us, is the Eternal City. Each tale starts off conventionally enough before gradually easing into the absurd and the surreal. Allen himself, along with his wife Judy Davis, comes to Rome to meet their daughter, Alison Pill, and her new Italian fiancé, Flavio Parenti. Allen, retired director of avantgarde opera, discovers that the fiancé's father, Fabio Armiliato, can sing like Caruso but only in the shower, which leads to Allen concocting some very bizarre public appearances for him on stage.

Italian newlyweds Alessandro Tiberian and Alessandra Mastronardi book into a hotel to meet his starchy relatives, who are about to offer him a job. But the couple become separated; the wife, lost in the Roman streets, blunders on to a film location and fetches up in the bedroom of a fat, bald Italian movie sex symbol while the husband (don't ask why) has to pretend to his disapproving relations that a hooker – Penélope Cruz, sexier and more stunning than you've ever seen her – is his wife.

Meanwhile, would-be American architect Jesse Eisenberg is falling dangerously in love with Ellen Page, an actress and, although pretty drab on the surface, a maneater, who has come to stay with him and his girlfriend, Greta Gerwig. Here – again don't ask how or why – Alec Baldwin, a successful architect who had once lived in Rome and is now on holiday, keeps manifesting himself, not always seen by everyone, at crucial moments in the relationship to warn Eisenberg what a phoney Page is. Are he and Eisenberg supposed to be the same man at different stages of life? I don't know but who cares – it's good fun.

All these tales work very well; the one that doesn't concerns Roberto Benigni as a humble clerk who suddenly and unexpectedly becomes a celebrity, famous for being famous, pursued by gorgeous women, his most banal actions and comments riveting to the media.

It's a nice idea but too farfetched and oversimplified to inflict serious wounds on the absurd cult of celebrity.

Still, three out of four is not bad. Rome looks as enchanting as ever, the performances are good, all the stories end up happily and even when less than absolutely top class, Woody Allen is a heck of a lot more entertaining than most other directors' best work.

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