ROME, WITH REGR
To Rome with Love
IDISCOVERED by chance the other day that I was the same age as Woody Allen — a little older, in fact — and the knowledge afforded me a quite irrational satisfaction. Woody and I had something in common. The same Woody Allen who had given me more sheer pleasure across a greater span of years than any other living filmmaker was somehow on a similar wavelength, sharing, if not a common store of wisdom or experience — hardly that — then at least a certain chronological perspective on the world.
And the idea made sense. It is surely true that our sense of humour evolves with time. And looking back on Allen’s films — more than 50 of them in five decades — it is possible to detect a pattern of changing moods and flavours, from the exuberant romanticism of the early comedies to the sterner and more cynical attitudes of Woody’s middle years to the more reflective works of more recent times, all somehow attuned to the passing of the years. His new film, To Rome with Love, might be called an old man’s meditation on mortality, a hymn to the lost possibilities of youth.
I loved it, as I’ve loved nearly all his films — which is not to say To Rome with Love is without flaws or one of his best. It lacks the cohesion, the joyous sense of fantasy of his previous film, Midnight in Paris, and the wit and poignancy of mature masterpieces such as Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanours. Characters seem to have been plucked at random from some corner of Woody’s consciousness and left hanging in the air, their stories undeveloped, their fates unresolved. There are only the most tenuous connections between the various narrative
✩ strands. And even the best jokes tend to be laboured. It’s hard to forgive such awkward formulations as ‘‘ Ozymandias melancholia’’ (to describe one’s feelings in the presence of old ruins), and the joke about the singer under the shower apparently was borrowed from an old episode of The Flintstones. When this was pointed out to me by a younger member of my family I had hopes of being the first reviewer to draw attention to the fact — until I discovered that the internet had already gone viral with speculation about seemingly remarkable coincidences and vague hints of plagiarism.
And yet . . . the film has a freshness and charm that only Allen can bring off. After all, what’s one borrowed idea between friends? The cast could hardly be better and the film is a pleasure to watch. From its sweeping opening shot of the Piazza Venezia, where a friendly traffic cop greets us with an introductory narration, from glimpses of the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and other familiar landmarks to the more intimate surroundings of little streets, squares and cafes, Rome looks every bit as enchanting as Paris did in Allen’s previous film. Here is a picture-book Rome — all pink and terracotta masonry set against patches of dazzling blue sky and rich, verdant tendrils on walls and archways. The cast — even the more prosaic characters — seem to take on an added vibrancy from their surroundings. It’s a trick that worked in old Hollywood musicals and, with the help of his cameraman Darius Khondji (who also shot mastered it.
Woody himself has a fairly small part. It’s his first acting appearance in one of his films since Scoop (2006), and everything turns on his resentments and dissatisfactions. He plays Jerry, a retired New York opera producer unhappy with his life and career. Poor Jerry has never got over the shame of a failed production of Rigoletto with a cast of white mice. He hates the idea of retirement and harbours vague dreams of a late-life comeback. His wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis, in her first appearance in an Allen film since Deconstructing Harry), bluntly tells him: ‘‘ You equate retirement with death.’’ And when we first meet Jerry death seems to him an imminent possibility. Unnerved during a turbulent descent into Rome aboard an aircraft, he is powerless to pray for deliverance: ‘‘ I’m an atheist.’’ It’s the purest example of the agnostic humour that was a feature of all Allen’s early comedies. And how pathetic this Jerry seems — frail, irascible, petulant, argumentative. And yet how funny.
There are 13 principal characters and none of their stories amounts to much on its own. But each has a lovely comic twist, and the film is made with such skill that everything seems to flow easily. Jerry and his wife are flying to Rome to meet their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill) and their prospective son-in-law Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), who have fallen in love at first sight. Next we meet John, a celebrated American architect (Alec Baldwin) who is searching Rome for the house where he lived as a young man. Like Jerry, John is pining for lost youth, a fresh start in life, and meets by chance an eager young architect called Jack
Midnight in Paris),