To Rome With Love
Written and directed by Woody Allen
With Alec Baldwin, Ellen Page, Judy Davis, Roberto Benigni, Jesse Eisenberg, Alison Pill
This is precious Woody Allen. Contemporary vintage, Woody Allen. And as always, this latest film is another enjoyable trip down the endless rabbit hole of his creative acumen.
For psych buffs, the full gamut of personas are present in To Rome With Love, complete with the usual set of Freudian characters — the Id, Ego and Superego — as is the neurotic character that shadows Woody Allen himself (a role held in the past by Alan Alda, Woody Harrelson, and most recently Owen Wilson, to name a few) played here by Jesse Eisenberg (of recent Social Network fame).
Not to mention the couples and threesomes that populate Allen’s metaphoric universe of sexual fantasies, extremes and possibilities. His films are always a delight, because he stretches the limits of our imaginations between the reality we are constrained to and the fantasies he/we are forever attracted to.
Here, marriage and infidelity and intertwined as though one is needed by the other to maintain a healthy balance. And there is always that perpetual desire to delve deeper intellectually, to go yet further inside human motivation, to the other side of the line drawn by societal or moral restrictions, while laughing at the superficial nonsense, incongruities and blatant contradictions of our human nature.
Allen seems to thrive on conflict, opposing ideologies, and contrasting personalities. Enters the eternal sexual conflict between “want” and “should”, desire and duty, personified by Ellen Page who plays the manipulative vixen, Monica, who visits Sally (Greta Gerwig), Jack’s girlfriend and the much “safer” choice, and Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) in Rome. Alec Baldwin plays John who then becomes Jack’s Freudian Superego in a surrealist screenwriting departure. Much like Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris, when he takes a stroll alone at night and crosses the barriers of time, here John stands in scenes ubiquitously like a Greek chorus echoing the conscience of the smitten lover who knows better but who nonetheless “walks straight into the propellers” offered by Monica. John is Jack’s alter ego because he is revisiting his own past as an architecture student in Rome; He can see Jack’s future, because it is his own!
This is a truly fascinating bit of filmmaking: Allen opens a window (Jack’s conscience) inside of a window (Jack‘s real-time decisions), in a crossover from reality into dream with nimble, seamless precision. Baldwin’s character is both John and Jack’s conscience, in the same scenes. And at the same time, Allen illustrates that life seems a perpetual wheel of repeating similar events and outcomes from which there seems to be no escape.
In that sense, it seems that, with age, Allen’s genius has become like an Escher drawing: A cinematographic rendition of life as a set of infinite possibilities and stories whose ends are their own beginnings.
The character that Allen plays, Jerry, also seems to convey this analogy of infinity, or legacy, as the opera promoter who refuses to stop working. With that special brand of Allenesque New York humour that leaves a grin on your face throughout the movie, To Rome With Love manages to bury this important sub-theme under a string of vignettes that depict another predominant theme, that of the superficiality of reality television and instant stardom, and that of flighty sexual relationships, all with so much smart, tongue-and-cheek subtlety.
Like for example, those ludicrous scenes of the newly discovered opera tenor (real life tenor Fabio Armiliato) who can only sing in the shower, on stage at the Opera house, delivering Verdi and Puccini in a shower stall, wielding fatal blows while carrying on with a back scrub sponge.
Or those with the very straight, married man frantically “stuck” with a sexy prostitute posing as his wife (Penelope Cruz) to an elitist business crowd he wants to impress and which is largely constituted of her client list. Or with the daily scrutiny of an ordinary clerk (Roberto Benigni) who doesn’t understand how he ends up instantly “famous” without having “done anything.” These are obvious social commentaries to which Allen doesn’t resist.
But death remains somewhat of a central issue. In the scene when Jerry laments that he doesn’t feel that he has done enough in his life, Allen’s wife (Judy Davis), the psychiatrist, concludes that he just doesn’t want to retire, because retirement represents death to him. In another scene when he sticks to his original idea about promoting the shower tenor, who happens to be a mortician by day, he says that he is an “out-of-the-box” thinker. A line which begs the wife’s psychoanalytical response, that not wanting to retire speaks directly to the desire to escape the embalmer’s box! Touché!
At 77, Woody Allen, like the character he plays, won’t quit. He still pumps out a movie a year. And to this writer, an unconditional fan since Annie Hall, Allen’s unique intellectual offering, acute social prism and hypersensitive creative spirit is becoming precious with time.