Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Best Films of 2012: #5

After the mediocre, name-dropping "Midnight in Paris" (which the masses loved because it let them feel sophisticated for picking up on literary references from high school English), Woody Allen returned triumphantly to form with "To Rome With Love," his richest work since "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," brimming with great ideas cleverly realized and chock full of outsize laughs.

Jesse Eisenberg and Greta Gerwig play Jack and Sally, an American couple living in Rome while he finishes training as an architect. 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 live and represents Jack's older self. Page has a hilarious monologue recounting a series of sexual encounters, while Baldwin's patented smugness, usually a turn-off, hits just the right note; Monica "knows one line by every poet she names," he warns Jack (an apt description of "Midnight in Paris" as well; okay, I kept thinking, there are Zelda and F. Scott - now what?). It's a lost cause, though, and Baldwin can only look on incredulously 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, which go in one ear and out the other. A "high school astronomy teacher," Milly's not dumb, just ingenuous and vaguely unfocussed, and when she happens across her favorite movie actor, the unlikely heartthrob Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese), who propositions her, Mastronardi's face registers her internal dilemma and eventual gleeful amenability. Meanwhile, the prostitute Anna (Penelope Cruz) lets herself into Antonio's hotel room - don't worry, she assures him, Bruno and Tomas have prepaid for everything. He has no idea who she is, let alone Bruno or Tomas, but the unexpected arrival of the relatives who've arranged his new position compel him to tote Anna around as Milly. Watch the wondrous and infinitely sexy Cruz as she explains to some 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 the film's four cross-cutting stories 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 celebrity, asking his chauffeur why him. "Sir," the man replies, "you are famous for being famous." He enjoys the perks of fame - his party gets the best table at a hot restaurant, a sexy actress slips him her phone number - but he longs for his anonymity. Until, of course, he gets it back - the press has moved on to a postman - and desperately offers 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 through Woody's entire oeuvre.

Woody himself appears in the fourth segment, as Jerry, a New Yorker in Rome to meet his daughter's Italian fiancé, Michelangelo. Jerry's recently retired from an undistinguished career as an avant-garde opera director (he staged a "Rigoletto" with the 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.

In a cinema lacking in both big ideas and genuinely funny comedy, Woody saves the day yet again, with one of his most ambitious and best films in a decade.

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