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LA Film Fest: Woody Allen's To Rome With Love

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The Los Angeles Film Festival kicked off last night with the U.S. premiere of Woody Allen's 42nd film, the latest cinematic postcard sent back Stateside from his late period tour of great European Capitals, To Rome With Love. The maestro himself was in attendance downtown, a rare treat for our vast freeway-girded metropolis whose contribution to world culture Allen so famously limited to traffic rules in Annie Hall. (Then again, if the great one drove more, maybe he could appreciate just how soulfully wonderful it is to turn right on a red light.) Perhaps this brief jaunt will fill Allen with an appreciation for how the City of Angels has grown since he last languished out here in his youth, though I doubt an evening at L.A. Live would turn his head. Sadly, I think Allen's more likely to rhapsodize Ljublana's alt rock scene before he sends L.A. any filmic-love letter -- or even a flirtatious YouTube-text. So, for all those cineastes desperate to see how Woody's nihilist humor meshes with Mediterranean climes, To Rome With Love may be as good as it gets.

Your first instinct, especially after the film's now-expected tourist photo-montage of the Eternal City, might be to compare it to Midnight in Paris. It is, after all, Woody's greatest commercial success and a worthy addition to his canon, with Owen Wilson's beaujolais-soaked bonhomie gently modulating Allen's tannic cynicism to give a full-bodied, well-themed glass of intelligent, escapist fare. (Sorry, I'm drinking as I write this.) However, To Rome With Love is an entirely different creature all together: a farcical, free-spirited omnibus in the tradition of De Sica's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and Boccaccio's Decameron. And as such, it comes served as a round of absurdest antipasti that don't so much intertwine as break each other up in a jazzy, free form movie appetizer.

A pretty young American (Alison Pill) comes to Rome and immediately falls for the prototypical well-dressed Italian stud, prompting a sudden engagement that drags her failed avant garde opera impresario father (Allen himself) and mother (Judy Davis) kvetching and moaning to meet the in-laws. Yet, lo and behold, neurotic Daddy discovers that his daughter's new undertake father-in-law has a magical voice -- one he can only access within the safe confines of his shower. Still, Allen's not about to let this small technicality impinge on his hopes for a career revival. Across the Tiber, in trendy Trastavere, an aged, successful architect (Alec Baldwin) reminisces about his youth in Rome and meets a young admirer, Jesse Eisenberg, who's also a budding architect and a sort of twitchy proto-Frank Gehry. Eisenberg invites the rakish Baldwin back to his place to meet his girlfriend, Greta Gerwig, just as her loose-canon best friend, a floundering actress (Ellen Page) with a penchant for needy seduction, comes to crash with them. Baldwin then acts as a knowing Greek Chorus to star-crossed lovers as the inevitable -- and mutually delusional -- triangle begins to coalesce with Page and Eisenberg name-dropping great poets and cooking, very, very poorly.

However, this time Allen doesn't content himself with Americans at play abroad. He also includes two Roman vignettes: one of a young, idealistic couple from the country (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) who arrive in Rome to start new lives as part of the Roman upper class. However, fate (or more accurately Woody Allen's typewriter) separates them and tests their doe-eyed love: for him, that test takes the form of a busty Penelope Cruz as a prostitute sent to the wrong room; for her, fate incarnates as her favorite movie star (Antonio Albanese), who she meets while he's filming, then quickly finds herself accepting a less-than-innocent invitation to lunch. Lastly, and most ingeniously, Allen follows the fate of an average middle class man played by the aging, yet still comically elastic Robert Benigni, who wakes up to find himself famous for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Every aspect of his daily life is dissected, digested and regurgitated on TV and in the papers, against his initially vehement protestations. Of course, while he bemoans his random loss of privacy, he also finds himself enjoying the endless premiere invites and having Italy's leading ladies throw themselves shamelessly at him.

It's par for the course to give Allen wide latitude in your expectations. He's certainly earned it. Catching the latest Woody Allen film is like opening a party favor bag: you're as likely to get a bonafide masterly success as a light confection for loyal fans, a noble failure with redeeming qualities, or a "What the hell was that?" disappointment. And frankly, after nailing an ace with Midnight in Paris, you're almost holding your breath lest he hit the ball boy with his next serve. It's just bound to happen, statistically. So, as To Rome With Love struggled to get going, I was actively lowering my expectations, if not to The Curse of The Jade Scorpion or Anything Else levels, maybe to A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy or You Will Meet A Tall, Dark Handsome Stranger territory. Basically, I thought "Woody must have wanted to get a crack at those new Italian filming tax incentives before the euro crashed." However, once certain vignettes started showing some momentum, I found myself going along for the ride; the best part of an omnibus film is you don't have to damn the whole enterprise with faint praise if parts of it don't work as well as others. Considering Alec Baldwin's reliable comic genius on 30 Rock, his relegation to background commentary narrating the Eisenberg-Page-Gerwig affair felt like a lost opportunity -- as was Page's perplexing turn as the kind of messed up girl whose confusion is as frustrating as it is titillating. It felt like Gerwig's lazy-eyed hipster sensuality would've been the better fit, and as I watched Jesse try to swap Greta for Ellen, I found myself re-imagining the piece with Woody swapping Page for Gerwig. Nonetheless, the wisdom of Woody's wry observations rang through and eventually hit my funny bone. The mirroring Roman story of the other fractured couple, Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi, also felt a little like pasta served al dente -- an acquired taste for undercooking. But who can complain about getting to watch Penelope Cruz traipse around in a hot-red mini half the time; and Mastronardi's part of the story finished with a nice comic flourish.

Unexpectedly, the more bizarre vignettes tickled me the most. The showering opera singer section also started slow, then built to a glass-shattering finish when the obligatory relationship humor of "meeting the folks" took a sharp left into the rich Italian tradition of farce. I know I'm battling disbelief from those who found Life Is Beautiful's heart-warming take on the holocaust nauseatingly sweet, but Roberto Benigni steals the show. Really, there's nothing much to his story -- it's satirical commentary more than anything else. Then again, Begnini works best with the bare outlines of a plot in films like Johnny Stecchino and The Monster that allow him to distort his pliable innocence into overwhelmed masks of comic confusion. You can feel Allen's distaste for the existential absurdity of fame rooting the satire, but Begnini brings a clownish humanity to a section that's more idea than story. The alchemy of Allen and Begnini produces a puff-pastry of Pirandello-esque dimensions that makes it far more enjoyable and amusing than you might expect. Allen's writing is transfigured by Begnini's gestures and reactions, a buffoonery that belies the Italian's delicate mastery of comedic ballet. You can write this stuff, but it takes someone like Begnini to pull it off. After all, as I'm sure Charlie Chaplin would agree: clowning is serious business. Overall, To Rome With Love might not be an elegant grand masterpiece fit for a night at the opera, but it is an amusing bit of commedia dell'arte, a reliably fun street show you can stop to watch on your walk home while you digest your dinner.