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).

To Rome With Love is a mixed bag, almost by design. As the director cuts between these unrelated stories seemingly at random, the Roman streets emerge as the most concrete linking thread: They're a labyrinth for the highly archetypal characters to get lost in and come out the other side transformed. In Midnight, an impatient Owen Wilson had to wait until after after-dinner drinks to access the city's magical possibilities. In Rome, the strange, the unexplainable and the impossible all happen in broad daylight. The film has a waking-dream logic that remains ambiguous throughout — Allen himself is not necessarily sure which aspects of the film are memories and fantasies, or even in which character's head certain scenes are playing out. "We never fixed it," he says. "We never knew."

Chock-full of actors unknown to mainstream American audiences, acting in Italian (only the Page-Eisenberg-Baldwin thread is fully in English), Rome represents a higher degree of difficulty than anything Allen has done in a while. But while shooting big conceptually and technically, Allen retreads a lot of familiar territory. Cruz's inconvenient hooker plotline was funnier and more effective in Deconstructing Harry (which itself could be categorized as a revisiting of ... wait for it ... Stardust Memories). This wouldn't be a problem if Rome were consistently hilarious, but some of the humor is so stale that I occasionally wondered if the movie was supposed to be set in the present day. (A "boxers or briefs" joke? Really, Woody?)

Within this uneven stew, the Page-Eisenberg-Baldwin thread is truly the standout, giving Rome both its biggest laughs and its most substantive pangs of poignancy, and creating a solid bedrock for the rest of the film to bounce off of.

Left to Right: Woody Allen and Roberto Benigni
Photo by Philippe Antonello
Left to Right: Woody Allen and Roberto Benigni
Left to Right: Alessandro Tiberi as Antonio and Penélope Cruz as Anna in To Rome With Love
Photo by Philippe Antonello
Left to Right: Alessandro Tiberi as Antonio and Penélope Cruz as Anna in To Rome With Love

It's in Page's vignette that Allen really shows his gift for directing through inspired casting. Before she appears on-screen, Page's Monica is described by her best friend, Sally, as a man-magnet, "because of the sexual vibe she gives off." That "vibe" is not necessarily natural, and anyway, what's more significant is the way aspiring actress Monica gives it off. In one scene, she forces her bedroom bravado on Sally and her boyfriend, Jack, via a long, after-dinner monologue on her past exploits ("As great as the orgasms were with Victoria, they were a lot stronger with Jamal").

One of the meta-jokes of Rome is that the closest thing to unbridled passion occurs between the characters played by Page and Eisenberg — hardly the stereotypical bombshell and lothario. When Page (who is incredibly tiny in person, with a slip of a voice that barely registers) first read the part, she tells Allen, "I was a little taken aback by the fact that you wanted to cast me as the floozy, you know?"

"That I wanted to what?" Allen responds, as if not sure he heard his soft-spoken star correctly — did she just say "floozy"?

"That you wanted to cast me in this role," Page explains. "I just felt like it was very foreign to what I'm used to being seen as. So it was a wonderful opportunity, but I also felt very intimidated and insecure. And I remember we talked on the phone—"

"We did speak, but we didn't speak long," Allen interjects.

"We didn't speak long, and you were basically, like, 'Don't — why are you — don't talk about it. Like, it's actually okay.'"

"To me, you seemed perfect for it. I had no reservations whatsoever," Allen says. "I mean, you never sit down and talk about the characters. I don't really know the answers to those questions."

Cruz remembers when she first worked with Allen, on Vicky Cristina Barcelona. "I went up to him one morning with my book of notes on the character, and he looked at me like I was totally crazy," she says. "I even had some drawings that expressed the anguish and the suffering of the character, and he was laughing at me. But he always does it in a way that would never make me feel bad about it. That's the way he works."

"You cast great people, and you leave them alone," Allen says. "They do what they do, then you look good, you take credit for directing them. But the truth of the matter is, you give them almost no direction."

Fittingly for Allen's first film set in the Eternal City, Rome is kind of a mix-tape of his eternal themes. The segment in which Allen stars is all about the fear of death, the impulse to find life's validation in creative work and the folly of that impulse — in essence, Ozymandias Melancholia in practice. Benigni's segment, and the portion of the Cruz storyline in which the small-town wife is farcically wooed by a famous actor, deal with the false but powerful aura of fame. In both stories, the famous are treated as exempt from the rules that govern the rest of us. They could use this power to do anything. They mostly use it to get laid.

"The only good thing I've found about becoming well-known, famous, whatever you want to call it, is I was able to break down the myth of fame," Cruz says. "Truly realizing that it's the most impermanent and absurd and nonexistent thing. It's just an illusion."

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