Around the World in Woody's Malaise
The Ozymandius Melancholia Gambit ("Turbulence! My Favorite!")
Far be it for me to suggest that Woody Allen might actually be comfortable in his own skin as a storyteller. but when it has come time for him to do his own "Roman Holiday" film, To Rome With Love, there's not a hint of Fellini in it (Been there, done that—specifically, way back in 1980, when he made his Stardust Memories in tribute to the great Italian film-maker). Truth to tell, his latest has more in common with the Italian "anthology" films of the 1960's, where directors would tackle similar themes in short personal films.
To Rome With Love has four interlocking fantasias about love and personal dissatisfaction: in the first, a young married couple (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) come to Rome, where he is to be introduced to his new work situation—eager to make a good impression, the wife goes shopping and ends up getting lost and involved with an Italian film-star, and hubby, thanks to a case of mistaken identity, must go to his functions in the company of a pre-arranged hooker (Penelope Cruz); the second involves two architects, one seasoned (Alec Baldwin), the other just starting out (Jesse Eisenberg) who become each other's fantasy figures (of a sorts) when the young architect, already attached to Sally (Greta Gerwig), falls for her best friend Monica (Ellen Page), a self-involved, if fascinating, actress; the third involves a "normal member of the middle class" in Rome (Roberto Benigni) who suddenly becomes "famous for being famous," and is pursued and interviewed by an indiscriminate paparazzi; the fourth involves a former classical music executive (Allen), who discovers a great opera singer (Fabio Armiliato) in the family of his potential son-in-law..with conditions.
The setting is Italian, but the themes are pure "Allen-town." Each of the characters get a brief glimpse of "life on the other side," gingerly placing their toes where the grass is greener, and find it wanting, but themselves enriched from the experience, survived without harm or consequences paid. Baldwin's architect gets to play devil's advocate (much the same way as Bogart did in Play It Again, Sam) with a realist's wisdom, as opposed to a romantic's fool-hardiness—a good cure for his nostalgia. The Italian couple experience romantic fantasies before settling down to domestic bliss, not older but wiser.
Benigni's civil-functionary briefly enjoys cultural significance, with all the invasiveness and dissection of minutiae, before returning to anonymity and the value of a private life, and Allen's retiree gets to witness a fulfillment of his dreams by providing a channel for another, and, having achieved it, returning to his normal life.
Any of these stories could be set anywhere. Rome provides a nice catalyst for these quick short pieces that summarize the Allen world-view: "Life is terrible, but it beats the alternative." And it's buttressed by the standard "Volare"...which mean "to fly."
To Rome With Love is a fine Matinee.