“To Rome With Love” is Woody Allen’s richest work in years, brimming with great ideas cleverly realized and chock-full of outsize laughs. It marks a welcome return to form for Woody after the mediocre “Midnight in Paris,” whose mass appeal lay primarily in the sort of name-dropping he lambastes here.
Jesse Eisenberg and Greta Gerwig play Jack and Sally, an American couple living in Rome while he finishes his schooling in architecture. Sally’s best friend, the unlikely vixen Monica (Ellen Page), visits after breaking up with her boyfriend, and Jack slowly, almost involuntarily transfers his desire to her, despite the protestations of John (Alec Baldwin), a rueful and lovelorn architect who used to live where Jack and Sally do and may represent Jack’s older self. Page has an early monologue recounting a series of sexual encounters that made me laugh harder than any of the hipper-than-thou dialogue in “Juno,” while Baldwin’s patented smirkiness, usually a turn-off, hits just the right note here; Monica “knows one line by every poet she names,” he warns Jack. It’s a lost cause, though, and I found humor in John’s ultimate resignation and the incredulous look on Baldwin’s face as Monica casts her inexorable spell.
Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are provincial newlyweds moving to Rome, where a well-paying and upwardly mobile job awaits Antonio. They’re on their way out to meet some of Antonio’s new colleagues for the first time when Milly, running a quick errand, gets herself lost in the city. Allen has a lot of fun with the conflicting directions she gets from passersby – “Make a left, walk two blocks, you’ll see a shoe store, turn right, go one block, then a left and you can’t miss it” – which we see from Milly’s expression go in one ear and straight out the other. A “high school astronomy teacher,” she’s not dumb, just ingenuous and vaguely unfocussed, and when she happens across her favorite movie actor, the unlikely heartthrob Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese), Mastronardi’s internal dilemma and eventual gleeful amenability are delightful to watch. Meanwhile, the prostitute Anna (Penelope Cruz) lets herself into Antonio’s hotel room – don’t worry, she assures him, Tomas and Bruno have prepaid for everything. He has no idea who she is, let alone Tomas or Bruno, but the unexpected arrival of the relatives who’ve arranged his new position compel him to tote Anna around as Milly. The wondrous and infinitely sexy Cruz is basically playing herself as a hooker, but watch as she explains to a series of VIP’s at Antonio’s new firm – “half of my client book,” she complains – that tonight she’s not Anna but Milly, and, yes, Tuesday at 3 will be fine.
The third of four cross-cutting vignettes involves the everyday schmo Leopoldo Pisanello (Roberto Benigni), a cubicle-dwelling clerk who, after breakfast with his wife and kids one morning, walks to his car only to find himself unaccountably besieged by paparazzi. They want to know everything about him: What did he have for breakfast? White toast or wheat? Does he think it’s going to rain? He’s shuffled off to TV studios for interviews, and the next day finds a reporter in his bathroom: “We’ll be covering his shave live, from the first stroke to the last.” He loathes this unsought and inexplicable notoriety, asking his chauffeur why him. “Sir,” the man replies, “you are famous for being famous.” Celebrity has its privileges – his party gets the one remaining table at a popular restaurant ahead of people who’ve been waiting for an hour, a hot actress gives him her number and tells him he’s much more attractive than all the conventionally handsome leading men – but he longs for his anonymity. Until, of course, he gets it back – the press has moved on to a postman – and suddenly finds himself offering autographs to people who don’t remember him. This theme – of wanting the one thing you can’t have, or shouldn’t have – runs through the strands of “To Rome With Love” and, of course, through all of Woody’s oeuvre.
Woody himself appears in the fourth segment, as Jerry, a New Yorker in Rome to meet his daughter Hayley’s Italian fiancé, Michelangelo. Jerry’s recently retired from an undistinguished career as an avant-garde opera director (he staged a “Rigoletto” with the entire cast costumed as white mice), and his wife, the psychotherapist Phyllis (Judy Davis), is always quick to offer an analytic explanation for his failures. Davis – who’s done so much brilliant work with Woody – makes any movie better, even where, as here, she’s just tossing off punch lines. It turns out Michelangelo’s father sings opera like an angel, but only in the shower, which leads to one of Jerry’s bright ideas that I wouldn’t dare give away. Suffice to say, it’s amazing nobody’s thought of it before.
In a current cinema woefully lacking in both big ideas and genuinely funny comedy, Woody’s here to save the day, with one of his most ambitious and best films in a decade. The beautiful-looking and sounding “To Rome With Love” is nothing less than a gift to moviegoers.