After the slightly forced 2009 comedy Whatever Works, To Rome With Love feels remarkably wide-eyed and optimistic. Woody Allen weaves several storylines together seamlessly, all acting as commentaries on aspects of modern society. Unwarranted fame, infidelity, fear of obsolescence and mortality are all themes that weigh down the uplifting imagery in true Allen fashion. It’s a poignant time for him to be posing questions on a life’s work, as he continues his prolific output into his eighth decade.
His own character (recently retired theatre director Jerry) is a highlight, getting laughs from his first scene, in which he professes his atheist beliefs while strapped into a plane. The running joke between he and wife Phyllis (played by Judy Davis) that his failed ideas were “ahead of his time” – or, in Jerry’s words, “a little fast for mass appeal” – never gets old. The production he stages with funeral director Giancarlo (played by real-life opera star Fabio Armiliato) is genius. Giancarlo can only deliver his spine-tingling arias in the shower, so Jerry thinks inside the box and delivers his strangest production since staging Rigoletto with characters dressed as white mice. This plot is interspersed with Jesse Eisenberg’s character Jack’s love triangle with Sally and Monica (played by Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page), in which Jack assumes the style of a young Allen, grappling with his romantic indecision while returning Rome resident John (Alec Baldwin) lingers over him and Monica like a universal conscience. While their surreal exchanges, which intermittently interrupt various scenes, raise questions around the reality of Baldwin’s character, it’s possible Allen intended for this to be ambiguous – such is the nature of his existentialist tendencies. Regardless, the twist at the end of these characters’ escapades pays off.
As the cameras pan slowly over the sumptuous scenery – which takes a central, grounding role – the film also follows a naïve country couple who come to the city on honeymoon, but each end up having flings in the most unlikely circumstances. Allen deftly twists these characters’ stories to great delight. But Roberto Benigni’s depiction of the everyman who inexplicably rises to fame overnight is my favourite part. The simpleton awakes one morning to be greeted by frenzied paparazzi, and becomes, for a brief time, “famous for being famous”. These commentaries on the ludicrous aspects of society ground Allen’s otherwise lofty experiments, and they’re what make him so memorable.