To Rome, With Love begins already in motion, the camera curving around a roundabout until it lands on a statue-like traffic cop who confesses that he speaks poor English but is nonetheless eager to introduce us to some of his fellow Romans and their stories. It’s a corny bookend device of the sort we’ve seen in Woody Allen’s films before, the sort of throwaway cliché he enjoys employing, hopefully in the service of something more adventurous and unexpected. And To Rome, With Love is adventurous, though, more to the point, after more than 40 years and I don’t know how many movies, this may be the most unapologetically, deliriously, busily, messily nonsensical Woody Allen comedy ever. It is also frequently very, very funny.
To make an anagram of the film’s titular city, the operative word in Rome is more: more characters, more stories, more goofiness. We got a middle-aged bureaucrat (Roberto Benigni) who wakes up one day to discover that he’s a celebrity. He’s attacked by paparazzi, is whisked off to a morning show where he describes his breakfast, is given an office of his own and a giraffe in a tight dress who’s job detail involves “attending to his needs all day long.” We got an unhappily retired novelty opera director (Allen, in his increasingly ridiculous looking oversized chinos) and his psychiatrist wife (Judy Davis) who’ve come to Rome to visit their daughter (Alison Pill) and the family she’s about to marry into, a family whose patriarch is a mortician who sings like Caruso, at least in the shower. But how is Woody going to get him to realize he’s a star waiting to be exploited, I mean, discovered? (I can never tell if Woody gives himself the best lines or simply delivers them better than everybody else. While discussing his proletariat-championing son-in-law-to-be, he quips, “I was Left when I was his age too, but I wasn’t a communist. I couldn’t even share a bathroom.”
We got a couple of newlywed country bumpkins in the big city for the first time. She gets lost in the streets—for days! He’s unexpectedly visited by a prostitute (Penelope Cruz)! His wealthy Roman relatives walk in to his hotel room just as he and the prostitute and entangled on the bed, and in a moment of panic he pretends she’s his wife. The false couple are taken on a private tour of the Vatican and to a garden party brimming with Rome’s bigwigs of business—most of whom are Cruz’s clients. (A hooker who gets to hobnob with society: Davis isn’t the only thing resurrected from Deconstructing Harry.)
We got a young American architectural student (Jesse Eisenberg) enjoying a pleasant life abroad with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) until the girlfriend’s beguiling actress friend (Ellen Page, excellent as the fille fatale) comes to visit. “There’s something attractive about a man who’s sensitive to the agonies of existence,” she explains en route to a torrid affair with the hapless Eisenberg, who meanwhile receives romantic advice from an elder version of himself (Alec Baldwin, his brooding deadpan perfect for the film’s most absurd character). Baldwin’s introduced as an apparently normal guy, ie: not a phantom, returning the city where he spent his 20s, yet soon he meets Eisenberg and winds up tagging along on the kid’s adventures. Sometimes only Eisenberg can see and hear Baldwin; sometimes others can see and hear him. It’s totally inconsistent, ridiculous, and one of the best parts of the movie.
What’s it all about? Thrills are fleeting, fame is fickle, nostalgia is inherently false, romance is illusory. The usual Woody themes, but delivered with brio by a wonderful cast. Leave the monster truck rally superhero blockbusters to somebody else; this is my idea of silly summer fun.