To Rome With Love
directed by Woody Allen
Sony Pictures Classics

Midnight in Paris earned Woody Allen his fourth Oscar and was the biggest box office success in his long and productive filmmaking career. But Hollywood producers did not line up to finance his next project. Allen has never been willing to surrender artistic control to studio moguls: no casting suggestions, no focus-group editing, no one looking over his shoulder complaining about cost overruns. Those terms are unacceptable to the major studios, so financing has been a constant juggling act for Allen.

Today Allen’s producer is his sister, Letty Aronson. She stood by her older brother through the thick and thin of Mia Farrow’s accusations of child molestation, his marriage to Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon Yi Previn, and the move to filmmaking in Europe, where a kinder, gentler Allen has been successfully reinventing himself. Allen is of course the quintessential New Yorker; he is also the classic auteur, and his fans in Europe are more admiring and forgiving than many Americans. His films do particularly well in Spain, France, and Italy, and Aronson now is able to raise much of the money for her brother’s films in Europe. After the success of Midnight in Paris, Allen’s Italian distributors offered to bankroll his next film if he would make it in Rome. Allen said yes; it was the kind of “money in a brown paper bag” deal he could not refuse.

Allen came up with four interwoven stories and tentatively called his new movie “Bop Decameron,” which later became To Rome with Love. Presumably he had in mind a modern jazz version of The Decameron, the fourteenth-century work by Boccaccio in which ten people each tell ten stories in ten days. It is possible to find, or perhaps imagine, in the film traces of the medieval collection of stories. The film opens with a policeman histrionically directing traffic into Roman fender-bending chaos. He announces to the camera that he is best positioned to know all the stories of the city. And as the film ends with a concert (Volare, the song with which it opens) on the Spanish Steps, the shutters of a building are thrown open and a bearded man announces that he is the one who really knows all the stories of Rome. Next time we visit, he will tell them.

One of Allen’s stories is a sex farce that might have been inspired by the ribald tales of Boccaccio. A newlywed couple, Antonio (Alesandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alesandra Mastronardi), arrive in Rome from the northeastern province of Pordenone. They are on their best behavior; he is hoping to get an important position with his straight-laced and pretentiously pious, rich relatives. Instead, husband and wife get separated in the eternal city, each has a sexual adventure, and both seem the better for it. “Sex relieves tension; love causes it” is one of Allen’s mantras. Their story has a happy ending: they reject the hypocrisy of Antonio’s relatives, make good use of their fancy hotel room for a “quickie,” and head back to Pordenone.

The other stories likely come from Allen’s more customary sources. Allen keeps a file of the interesting ideas he develops while working on a film. To begin his next film, he sees what he can make of his collection. As the years have gone by, he seems to have more and more material in his file that is taken from earlier films. Match Point, for example, was an obvious remake of one of his best New York films, Crimes and Misdemeanors.

When Allen dug into his file for Rome, he came up with a familiar story about the Woody Allen persona. Although he vehemently denies it, all of his films are in some sense autobiographical. It is said of Shakespeare that on every page one can recognize the artist but on no page can one find the author. The contrary is true of Allen: the author is visible in everything he does. In most of his films, there is a Woody character, played by Woody himself, or, when he got too old for his own persona, by Michael Keaton, Kenneth Branagh, Will Ferrell, etc. In the new film, that character is a fledgling architect, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives in Rome and dreams of a career of uncompromising, radical innovation. He has a girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig), who loves and appreciates him. But he falls for her best friend, Monica (Ellen Page), a narcissistic actress who entices him by boasting about the quality of her orgasms and quoting lines from Yeats. She uses Jack to amuse herself during downtime, and then, having ruined his life, abandons him without the slightest qualm of conscience.

Allen’s passions seem to be cooling and his bitterness dissolving.

A third story has a part for the real, septuagenarian Allen. He plays Jerry, a retired opera director and producer of classical music recordings. For him retirement is death, and his wife (Judy Davis), a psychiatrist, keeps reminding him of this in what most psychoanalysts would consider a cruel if not sadistic interpretation. It passes as humor in the film, but it is typical of Allen’s transparently autobiographical writing. For the real Allen, retirement would be a kind of death; his sustaining “project” is to make a film a year as long as he lives.

On screen Allen is showing his age. His left eye droops and the lids are reddened. Apparently the makeup department could not resolve this. Allen has cast himself as the harmless old fool; when the Italian newspapers call him an imbecile, he mistakes it for a compliment. There were times in Allen’s real life when he seemed a version of Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert, chasing after Lolitas. It was the subject of his films—Manhattan, a “screenplay à clef” of his affair with a high school girl, and Whatever Works, based on an old screenplay that retells that same May-December story. Whatever Allen was up to in the past, however, his passions seem to be cooling and his bitterness dissolving. His films are more whimsical and forgiving: it is as though he is now able to empathize beyond the limits of his own neurotic ego. One fascinating change is that all of the characters, even the women, get to say Woody “lines.” Indeed, Scarlet Johansson played the Woody persona in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and other characters now utter the ironic asides that were once uniquely his. Only one line in Rome reveals the old persona: when his wife is going on at length, interpreting his fear of retirement as the fear of death, he interrupts her and loudly remarks, “You’re channeling Freud. Tell him I want my money back.”

The fourth story Allen found in his file must have been about the vacuity of celebrity—particularly the talentless celebrities exemplified by the Kardashians, who are famous solely because they are famous. He has made this idea “Roman” by having celebrity descend out of the blue on Roberto Benigni, the Italian clown who is now even more off-putting than when he won the Oscar for his Holocaust film Life is Beautiful. Benigni plays Leopoldo, a minor corporate employee with a humdrum life who wakes one day to find he is being followed by paparazzi, interviewed by television hosts, and pursued by beautiful women. Celebrity status departs as mysteriously as it arrived, leaving Leopoldo screaming in the streets for attention.

Allen deploys different genres of comedy in these four stories. The Decameron-like story is a door-slamming farce: husband and wife are unfaithful, but their innocence is preserved. The triangle seduction story of Jack is a relationship comedy much like Annie Hall. The Benigni segment is the comedy of the clown. The segment in which Allen appears is the theater of the absurd. Jerry’s daughter is marrying into the family of a mortician who sings in the shower like a great Italian tenor. Jerry, the onetime opera director, recognizes his talent and makes him comfortable by bringing the shower on stage in a full operatic production of Pagliacci. The mortician’s singing is pronounced wonderful and Jerry’s production the work of an imbecile.

One could describe Allen’s blend of different kinds of humor as a measure of his creative artistry or pan it as a mishmash. The critics see mishmash: they complain that the stories in Rome are not properly interwoven, the time lines make no sense, and one can see the jokes coming. I see a bop Decameron. The stories are not meant to be interconnected. The sexual farce, for example, is not meant to be a real story with a sensible timeline. The events are all so outlandish that one might better understand the segment as a modern fable. Part of the pleasure of Rome is its nostalgia and whimsy and the realization that Allen actually wants us to see the jokes coming.

Allen has the ability to assemble marvelous casts, all willing to work for less than the market price. It is not because Allen gives them inspired directorial advice. He selects actors for the part and then lets them do their thing; he is even willing to accept their improvisations.

Penelope Cruz helps Woody give sex a good name.

In this film he has a stellar cast including Penelope Cruz (who earned an Oscar working with Allen on Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and Alec Baldwin. Cruz plays Rome’s busiest call girl, attired in a lipstick-red mini dress. She appears in the sexual farce story; she has been paid to make a client’s wildest dreams come true, but she mistakenly forces her services on the provincial Antonio. With all of the sexual hoopla there is nothing profane or prurient in this extraordinary woman’s performance. She helps Woody give sex a good name.

Baldwin appears in the triangle love story as John, a version of Jack’s older self, advising the younger man and being ignored by him. This is déjà vu all over again for him. He knows the mistakes that Jack is making. Of course John does not belong in the scenes—he is a surreal element of Allen’s humor and wisdom. But he has a great Woody Allen line: when Monica, the femme fatale, objects to the advice he is giving Jack, she tells him he does not understand women. The real Baldwin replies that is a proven fact. He plays the same part that he does in all those television commercials, and it seems to strike exactly the right over-the-top note.

Allen found something else in his file, a phrase he used in Stardust Memories. In that film his character’s psychoanalyst diagnoses him as having Ozymandias Melancholia. “Ozymandias” is the famous Shelley poem about the monarch who had a huge statue built to memorialize his greatness. The poet comes upon the statue in ruins in the desert, proof that nothing, and certainly not greatness, lasts forever. This realization produces an existential depression, an Ozymandias Melancholia in the middle-aged artist. In Rome John, who has sold out as an architect and made a fortune building malls, diagnoses himself as suffering from Ozymandias Melancholia. Allen says he likes the phrase. And despite his denials and his warning in Rome—“Don’t analyze me. Many have tried, all have failed”— I take this to be Allen’s self-diagnosis. His recent films suggest he is learning to live with it.

Rome is not a great Woody Allen film, but it is delightful and those who appreciate his genius will be pleased to see that he hasn’t lost his touch.