Woody's Roman Holiday

Woody Allen and two co-stars meet in L.A. to talk about his new film, To Rome With Love, and some old themes (art, death, love).

The turning point came in 2005. Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite had won acting Oscars in the '90s, and the same decade saw the release of a couple of near-classics in Deconstructing Harry and Sweet and Lowdown. Nevertheless, Allen arguably struggled to assert himself artistically in the years following his well-documented 1992 breakup with Mia Farrow — his girlfriend of 12 years, his most frequent star during that period and the mother of his only biological child.

After a string of four consecutive films flopped with critics and audiences in the early '00s, Allen traveled to London to make Match Point, a romantic drama/thriller starring Scarlet Johansson. Match Point may have been a kind of English transposition of Allen's own, far superior 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors, but many critics declared it a return to form, and the film's $23 million gross made Match Point Allen's most popular effort in nearly 20 years.

He subsequently made three films in England (Scoop, Cassandra's Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), one in Spain (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which netted Cruz an Oscar) and then Midnight in Paris. Filming abroad allowed him to make his movies independent of Hollywood and its institutions, of which, Allen admits, "I don't have a great view."

Left to Right: Ellen Page as Monica and Jesse Eisenberg as Jack in To Rome With Love
Photo by Philippe Antonello
Left to Right: Ellen Page as Monica and Jesse Eisenberg as Jack in To Rome With Love

As far as his personal taste in films, he mentions A Separation and Blue Valentine as recent favorites. "These are not Hollywood pictures. The pictures that come out of Hollywood are industry pictures, pictures that are made for a profit motive exclusively, and I don't have any interest in them."

But his Euro-phase is not really a matter of aesthetics. He's not following his muse so much as following the money.

"The European film industry never had a studio system, and so they're very happy being bankers," Allen says. "In America, these guys who are only fit to be bankers — and barely that, but they are fit to be bankers — say, 'Well, we're not just bankers. We want to talk to you about the casting and talk to you about the script.' Whereas in Europe they're happy to say, 'We're bankers, and you're a product. We know what you do, and we'll give you the money to make the film.'"

Allen's seventh film since the beginning of his European sojourn, Midnight in Paris spans several time periods and features a gallery of impersonations of larger-than-life figures such as Salvador Dali, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; it's certainly more ambitious than, say, Scoop. But it's also, essentially, a one-joke enterprise — a Bill and Ted sequel for cultural studies majors, inviting a kind of cultural-historical trainspotting that flatters the viewer who can recognize a tossed-off line about Djuna Barnes' pushiness on the dance floor as a gay joke.

Woody Allen has been making a film a year for 40-plus years — why did this one become such a phenomenon?

"I have no idea," he says. "It was a happy accident that, for some reason, everybody embraced that picture tremendously. It had nothing to do with me. I made it the same way that I make any picture, and that one, people loved. And that was great. But it certainly has not resonated — the film studios, they didn't come to me after and say, 'Please make films with us. We'll give you whatever you want, or give you anything at all.' So it didn't resonate with me as a practical matter, and by the time it was successful, I wasn't thinking about it."

Midnight in Paris ultimately has its protagonist realize the folly of the very nostalgic thinking that the film, for the bulk of its running time, indulges. It's notable that the movie delivering a rebuke to the practice of fetishizing the past would become Allen's long-overdue late-career blockbuster, given the nostalgic thinking that has dogged him for decades. His critics (professional and otherwise) constantly measure his contemporary work against his "early, funny ones" — another phrase Allen coined in Stardust Memories.

Shortly after Stardust bombed with American critics and audiences, Allen quipped, "I do better in Milan than Moline." But it took him 22 years to make a movie in Italy. Why now?

"Well," Allen says simply, "Rome put up the money."

To Rome With Love opens on the image of a traffic circle at the center of the city — an international symbol of controlled chaos. The narrative interweaves four distinct stories. Cruz plays a prostitute who shows up unexpectedly at the hotel room of a country bumpkin. She ends up posing as his wife for a day of networking with Rome's business elite, while his actual wife is seduced by a movie star. Page plays a young woman who arrives in Rome and disrupts the domestic placidity of aspiring architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig), while Baldwin's John, who may or may not be an older version of Jack, looks on and offers advice. Italian superstar Roberto Benigni plays a middle-class office drone/family man who wakes up one morning to find that, through no apparent fault of his own, he's the most famous man in Rome. And Allen, in his first on-screen role since 2006, plays a retired opera director who discovers that the father of his daughter's fiancée is a hell of a tenor — but only in the shower.

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