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To Rome With Love - review

Ryan Gilbey dissects the decline and tentative rise of Woody Allen.

To Rome With Love (12A)
dir: Woody Allen

To wish for world peace may seem naive but it’s an act of the staunchest realism next to the hope that Woody Allen will one day return to making films worthy of his name. The phrase “It were all fields around here when I were a lad” has fallen into disuse now that the same effect can be conveyed by saying: “I recall a time when Woody Allen was a filmmaker of wit and elegance.” Looking at the evidence – nothing exemplary since 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown, and no actual greatness since Manhattan Murder Mystery in 1993 – you’d have to conclude that the old Allen, or rather the middle-aged one, is gone and he’s not coming back. Why this is a cause for consternation is unclear. Is it not better to have laughed and stopped than never to have laughed at all?

The problem has been the sheer breadth of the disparity between then and now. Gone is the pioneering use of narrative – the mockumentaries such as Zelig and Husbands and Wives, or the collage techniques of Annie Hall and Radio Days. Gone, too, is the stand-up sensibility of Sleeper or Love and Death, and the arresting roles for women, most of which were so meaty that one could overlook the inbuilt prerequisite that the female characters usually had to find Allen irresistible.

Expectations have been adjusted steadily downwards since at least The Curse of the Jade Scorpion in 2001 (a movie that even Allen considers his worst). It was marketing considerations that nudged Allen’s name into the small-print on the Match Point poster in 2005 – he was a commercial liability by then and the idea of anyone paying knowingly to watch a Woody Allen thriller was unthinkable in an age when people were reluctant even to see one of his comedies. The concealment worked: the film was a hit. But so debased was the brand that it had to be all but expunged in order to sell the product.

Now the plaintive cry goes up each year from Cannes or Venice announcing Allen’s return to form – a claim as devalued as the Zimbabwean dollar. The best we can hope for is that each picture will be less bad than the last one. Right now, the last one was Midnight in Paris, which was as feeble as it was popular (it grossed $150m, more than any other Woody Allen film). Perhaps the lowest point among many in the film was the scene in which the time travelling hero (Owen Wilson) gave Luis Buñuel the idea for The Exterminating Angel, only for the surrealist genius to demand to know why the guests in the scenario are unable to leave their dinner party. You heard right: Owen Wilson outfoxed Buñuel.

So it’s a perfect time to receive with gratitude Allen’s comic roundelay To Rome with Love, easily his least-bad movie in a decade or so. (Don’t scoff: faint praise is still praise.) Its incurious affection for the tourist spots of Rome places it alongside Midnight in Paris, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Everyone Says I Love You in the Linguaphone School of Film-making. But while the movie (Allen’s 42nd) feels like what it is – a late-period bagatelle from an artist too remote to render human encounters without mannerism – its silliness is rejuvenating.

It cuts back and forth between four unconnected stories characterised by fantasy or farce. John (Alec Baldwin), an architect, is wandering through Rome when he happens upon Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a student who reminds him of his younger self. In fact, he is his younger self: what else for John to do but intervene in the romantic mistakes of his youth? Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) is an office drone who bemoans the cult of celebrity, only to find it attaching itself to him arbitrarily. Suddenly his choice of breakfast is being debated by the nation, and his morning shave is a TV ratings smash. Should you have wondered what sort of Twilight Zone episode Fellini might have written, here’s your answer.

Allen himself plays Jerry, a former opera director who arrives in Rome with his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis), to meet their daughter and her new partner. But Jerry is distracted when he hears a tenor voice emanating from a shower stall, tempting him out of retirement. Meanwhile, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi), a prim young man from the sticks, is about to introduce his bride to his family. But it is Anna (Penelope Cruz), a prostitute stumbling into the wrong hotel room, who is mistaken for his wife in a development that even Ray Cooney might consider a tad contrived.

Not one of the stories adds up to a hill of borlotti beans, but the echoes and resonances between them generate a cumulative spell. Each plot concludes with the renouncing of the superficial, and a return to humility: Americans and Italians alike are disabused of their illusions, and the only enduring magic is shown to be the chance and chaos of love.

Although the movie delights in the possibilities thrown up by being lost in a foreign city. Allen himself sticks as closely as ever to his personal map. Wherever he sets his films, the hotels are always luxurious, each shot is fit for a picture postcard, and prostitution is an upbeat career choice for the go-getting young woman about town.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?