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The Times
  • Movie review: Woody goes to Italy for 'To Rome With Love'

  • Italy may be experiencing dire economic woes, but its chief asset, amore, continues to thrive in Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love.”

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  • Italy may be experiencing dire economic woes, but its chief asset, amore, continues to thrive in Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love.” He distributes it in just about every denomination, too, from start-ups to lucrative bonds. And on the other side of the coin, he reveals foolishness, despair and regret on the part of investors who got in too deep with volatile commodities. Question is: Is all this trading in emotions worth a share of your time?
    Hard to say. I guess it depends on how bullish you are on Allen, who made a killing with his last IPO, “Midnight in Paris.” Not only did he make millions on it, he brought home a brick of gold molded in the shape of an Oscar. But in moving his base of operations from France to The Eternal City, Allen apparently forgot to pack his imagination, because “To Rome with Love” feels too much like a knockoff of past creations, sending profit indicators pointing downward.
    What’s notable about his latest offering is his decision to diversify his talents among various scenarios built on the value of his blue-chip actors more than on his behind-the-scene contributions as CEO. In fact, he’s at his best when he does his “Undercover Boss” thing – stepping in front of Darius Khondji’s camera to join the ensemble by pretending to be, of all things, a retired opera promoter named Jerry, who travels to Rome with his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis), to meet the Italian-born fiancé (Flavio Parenti) of their daughter, Hayley (Alison Pill). And in the process of doing so, discovers that his future son-in-law’s father, a Roman undertaker (real-life tenor Fabio Armiliato), has a voice like Pavarotti that he wants to reveal to the world, and thus re-establish his standing among the opera elite. Only problem is, the guy can’t sing unless he’s in the shower, ergo setting the stage, literally, for some pretty hilarious third-act antics.
    It’s a winner, to be sure. But I’m even higher on another piece of “Rome’s” portfolio involving Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg as two peas from the same stupid-at-love pod. They randomly meet on a street corner near where Baldwin’s John once lived while attending architectural school. Immediately, he sees himself in Eisenberg’s gullible and impetuous, Jack. For the next several hours, John takes the lad under his wing, dispensing advice, including an emphatic warning not to fall for Monica (a never-better Ellen Page), the deceptively seductive BFF of Jack’s trusting girlfriend, Sally (the ubiquitous Greta Gerwig). The kicker is that the girls can’t see John, who can either be perceived as a reincarnation of the Bogart character from Allen’s “Play it Again Sam,” or simply a regret-filled man revisiting his youth through wizened eyes. Either way, it works beautifully thanks in large part to the magic Eisenberg and Page conjure during their whirlwind romance carried out amid the seductive beauty of Rome. And, as for Baldwin, he’s seldom been more charming, leaving you cursing Allen for not focusing the entire movie on him and the kids.
    Page 2 of 2 - You rue that decision even more when “Rome’s” remaining two ventures go instantly bankrupt. The lesser of these insolvencies finds a Roman everyman (Oscar-winner Roberto Benigni) suddenly encountering fame for no discernible reason, a la Kim Kardashian. Not only does the bit defy logic, it largely mimics Allen’s vastly better “Celebrity.” Still, Benigni makes it moderately tolerable. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for the time spent with a young Italian couple from the sticks who, in the film’s biggest contrivance, become separated and wind up in the arms of other people. For the husband (Alessandro Tiberi), lucky him, that would be a gorgeous hooker (Penelope Cruz); and for the wife (Alessandra Mastronardi), Italy’s sexiest movie star (Antonio Albanese). Yes, it’s as dumb as it sounds and should have been left on the cutting room floor.
    The value of “Rome” is reduced further by Allen’s inability to fluidly meld the overlapping storylines. The shifts are often jarring, and there are times when he seems to completely forget to check in on characters, allowing them to easily slip from mind. Robert Altman, he ain’t. But he does make you laugh, sometimes uproariously. And even though Allen is closing in on 80, his one-liners remain the surest bet on Wall Street. But whether or not those gems, along with the consistently strong performances, are enough to make “Rome” worth your investment is up to you. Me, I’d take a wait (for video) and see approach. Maybe by then it will seem more like a bargain than a bust.
    TO ROME WITH LOVE (R for some for some sexual references). Cast includes Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Greta Gerwig and Roberto Benigni. Written and directed by Allen. 2.5 stars out of 4.

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