‘To Rome With Love’

Penélope Cruz and Roberto Benigni in Woody Allen film

Woody Allen’s Roman holiday finds him in a playful, absurdist mood. There’s no movie in the Allen filmography you can point to that would catch the humor of “To Rome With Love,” except perhaps for the early early films such as “Take the Money and Run” or “What’s New Pussycat?”

The film is a complete escape from reality where the irrational meets the silly with an overlay of Kafka. Well, that is if Kafka had told better jokes.

The current Cooks Tour of Europe that has taken Allen away from his native New York to England and then on to Barcelona, Paris and now Rome has always been touristic: Allen simply drops his cosmopolitan New Yorker stories into postcard venues featuring European cities. “Rome” is no exception.

This is a Rome of outsiders, of visitors to the Italian capital from overseas or the provinces and their encounters with the breezy illogic of Roman life. In the background are the Forum, Tivoli Fountain, Colosseum, Victor Emmanuel Monument and Via Veneto. In the foreground are Allen’s chronically confused and dislocated dramatis personae.

The theme to all his subplots here is seduction in its many forms — romantic, financial, fame, lust, a longing for rebirth and the sorrow over falling for temptation. All his characters come to Rome as seekers whether they know it or not.

A young newlywed Italian couple from the sticks (Allesandro Tiberi, Allessandra Mastronardi) arrives intent on impressing the husband’s family so he might win a better job. Then a comic misunderstanding involving poor street directions and a voluptuous call girl (Penélope Cruz) upset all those plans and turn their lives into bedroom farce.

Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg in To Rome With LoveA shopping-mall tycoon (Alec Baldwin) wanders about the Trastevere neighborhood where he lived as a youth. When he meets a young architecture student (Jesse Eisenberg), he finds himself reliving the great mistake of his past as he watches the younger man fall for the gal pal (Ellen Page) of his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig).

An unhappily retired opera director (Allen) and his wife (Judy Davis) fly into town to meet her daughter’s fiancé only for the director to realize the fiance’s mortician father (noted tenor Fabio Armiliato) has a tremendous singing voice. But there is a major drawback — he only hits those high notes while singing in the shower.

A dull middle-class clerk (Roberto Benigni) suddenly finds himself, for absolutely no reason, the most famous man in Rome, hotly pursued by paparazzi and rushed onto TV news shows to explain his eating habits and choices in undergarments.

In these stories, all inherent reason and unities of time, place and action go out the window. Poof — gone. The length of time they take to play out ignores the sun. Stories that would need days if not weeks to unfold happen in a mere day or two. Baldwin’s middle-aged man moves in and out of the romantic triangle of the three young people as he would his own unhappy past, making comments the others hear only when they choose to, acting as a kind of Greek chorus only in this case it’s a Roman one. (Shades of Allen’s stage play “Play It Again, Sam.”)

Allen’s character stages an audition, then a recital and an entire opera overnight for his singing in-law-to-be. The newlywed bride and her hubby are separated for apparent days while in Rome yet it’s treated as an errant afternoon.

Penélope Cruz plays a hooker in Woody Allen movieNo explanation is required or given for Benigni’s celebrated status as a man famous for being famous. (With reality TV dominating our culture, why does this even need explaining?)

Allen directs his mischievous script with the lightest of touches. He has always claimed that Bob Hope’s movie roles serve as his model as an actor but here the dramatic logic of the old Crosby-Hope road movie takes over the entire film.

Allen’s character wants to escape retirement and get back into the theater. Benigni grows accustomed to the goddess Fame in his life. The shower singer sees a chance to realize his lifelong dream of opera stardom. The new bride wants to bed down with a famous Italian actor while her husband craves the urban lifestyle and its supposed riches.

Meanwhile Cruz’s prostitute struts through the film in a flaming red dress, the object of every man’s desires and the one character who has got what she wants in life.

Cinematographer Darius Khondji and production designer Anne Seibel turn the Eternal City into a glorious back lot of fantasy for Allen’s theater of the absurd as classic Italian songs and operas fill the soundtrack.

Some critics were not kind to “To Rome With Love,” following its English-language debut at LAFF, fussing about the absurdity of it all and the lack of respect shown the unities of time without seeming to realize that’s the very point. These are casual moral tales in a surrealistic mode that isn’t intended to deliver “Hannah and Her Sisters”-like drama. Lighten up! Allen certainly has.

Opens: June 22 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production companies: Sony Picture Classics presents a Medusa Film & Gravier/Perdido production
Cast: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Robert Benigni, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Fabio Armiliato
Director/screenwriter: Woody Allen
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Giampaolo Letta, Faruk Alatan
Executive producer: Jack Rollins
Director of photography: Darius Khondji
Production designer: Anne Seibel
Costume designer: Sonia Grande
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
R rating, 111 minutes