Woody Allen takes Euro tour to the Eternal City

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley sends a postcard "To Rome with Love."

Jason Fraley, WTOP film critic

WASHINGTON – Say what you will about Woody Allen’s personal life (his son, Ronan Farrow, recently took a Father’s Day jab), but as a filmmaker, he is unbelievably prolific.

At age 76, the Woodman has written and directed 42 films – some duds, some masterpieces – but each with the same auteur staples, from black-and-white opening credits, to forbidden love swaps eloquently penned in a comedy of manners. Who but Allen could win Best Original Screenplay in three different decades? In 2011 there was no better screenwriter, just like 1986 and 1977.

The 21st century has quickly become Allen’s “postcard period,” the fanny-pack musings of a workaholic filmmaker in the twilight of his life. “To Rome with Love” continues his Euro Tour after stops in London for “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” (2010), Barcelona for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008), and Paris for “Midnight in Paris” (2011), a tough act to follow.

If “Midnight in Paris” was a warning against nostalgia, “To Rome with Love” is a commentary on fame, using four interwoven plots to expose the artificial line between the “ordinary” and the “celebrity.”

1) Woody Allen and Judy Davis fly to Rome to meet their daughter’s fiance, whose father wows Allen by singing opera in the shower. As a former opera director, Allen gets him an audition, but the father clams up in the spotlight. This sparks Allen’s “genius” idea of bringing a portable shower on stage, lathering in the symbolism that this man is only capable of fame in his most private, naked state.

2) Jesse Eisenberg is an architect seduced by his girlfriend’s sex-crazed best friend (Ellen Page), who flies in from Hollywood. Alec Baldwin sees Eisenberg as a younger version of himself and wants to warn him against Page’s phony cultural pretenses. So, like the imaginary friend Bogart in “Play it Again, Sam” (1972), Baldwin pops up during intimate moments to provide advice.

3) Alessandro Tiberian and Alessandra Mastronardi are a newlywed couple who botch plans to “meet the parents” with a case of mistaken identity. The tame husband is accidentally sent a Spanish hooker, played by Penelope Cruz, while the virginal wife is seduced by her favorite Italian movie star. “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to kiss a movie star,” she says, as the actor reveals himself to be an average, everyday horn-dog.

4) Finally, Roberto Benigni is a regular joe who’s plucked from obscurity to become an overnight celebrity. Suddenly, paparazzi are following him everywhere, asking him mundane questions like how he butters his toast. It’s a classic case of celebrities who are “famous for being famous.” At first, Benigni demands his privacy, but when his 15 minutes are over, he’s left craving the spotlight.

Such thematic musings are what make Allen’s career great, providing a layer of substance beneath the sexy affairs and paranoid punchlines. The fact that this commentary unfolds with such reckless comedic abandon is a bonus, capturing the charming silliness of Bunuel’s “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” where we feel like anything can happen at any moment.

Whether or not you like the movie will depend on whether you’re already a fan of Allen’s work. Indeed there are folks who prefer him staying behind the camera, as was the case in gems like “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Match Point” and “Midnight in Paris.” “Rome” is more apt to please the diehards, as Allen once again casts himself as a neurotic whiner. Either you’re a fan of that schtick, or you’re not. Luckily I am, if only because I appreciate how effectively he has turned it into an archetype. Allen’s own self-caricature has become as iconic as John Wayne’s cowboy or Chaplin’s Tramp.

Here, the writing is clearly not his best effort. Many of the jokes don’t land, the “narrator” bookends don’t fit, and Baldwin’s dialogue appears half-hearted for the first third of the movie. The casting of so many non-Italians is also questionable, but just like Gene Kelly was “An American in Paris,” Allen has organized a collection of “Americans in Rome,” because that’s the perspective he knows.

I’ve enjoyed his romp across Europe, perhaps because I share his outside-looking- in approach. His foreign travels are presented through the prism of pop culture references, so when Allen visits Roman landmarks — the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain — I can’t help but think of Rossellini’s “Rome Open City,” Wyler’s “Roman Holiday” or Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.”

Allen’s wide-eyed adoration of the Eternal City drips from every frame, thanks to gorgeous cinematography from “Midnight in Paris” collaborator Darius Khondji and a catchy soundtrack with “Amada Mia, Amore Mio.” Sure it’s a shameless attempt to recreate the magic of Gershwin and the skyline of Manhattan, but he’s tackled New York City so much we can’t blame him for branching out.

At this point, he seems to be cranking out movies like a Hall of Fame ballplayer padding his stats. What truth in a scene where Allen says he’s getting old, and Davis says he was a man ahead of his time. The eternally paranoid Allen wants to leave as many films behind as possible so that they’ll live on after he’s gone. It’s his unique, artistic way of conquering his fear of death, and his career is a body of work to be cherished. So if you want to apply the “Crimes and Misdemeanors” scale of greatness, “To Rome with Love” is at least a charming misdemeanor.

★ ★ ★

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking ” Fraley on Film” under the “Living” tab above, following @JasonFraleyWTOP on Twitter, and checking out his blog, The Film Spectrum.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)