A version of this review appeared in The Age, October 20, 2012.
Whatever Woody Allen does these days, it's a pleasure just to see him keep working. His latest comedy may be a step down from the emotional high of last year’s Midnight In Paris, but it's still a relaxed, funny showcase for his enduring obsessions and quirks.
One brilliant and characteristic bit involves Allen himself as a former director of avant-garde opera, no less, who’s blown away by the singing voice of his lunch companion (real-life tenor Fabio Armiliato). Even when asked to drop the subject, he can't help himself: he falls silent for a moment, then immediately pipes up again. His psychologist wife (Judy Davis) gives the obvious explanation for this compulsive behaviour: unconsciously, her husband is exaggerating the other man's talent so he can indulge his own fantasy of artistic triumph. But the Allen character dismisses this. He prefers the idea of miracles – of things happening for no reason at all.
Allen's joking about psychoanalysis has always had a combative quality: he resists the implication that people, himself included, have "depth". Most of his characters are stock types borrowed from old movies or equally familiar sources: Hemingway, Dali and the other 1920s legends in Midnight In Paris are intentionally turned into cartoons.
But Allen doesn't just stereotype people: he stereotypes places, too. The latest stop on his belated Grand Tour of Europe that began with Match Point (2005), To Rome With Love is set without apology in the Eternal City of ruins, paparazzi and voluble traffic cops. Even its anthology format is lifted from vintage Italian entertainments like Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), though Allen cross-cuts between his stories rather than presenting them in turn. In fairness, he has more success emulating Italian models than he does with British or Spanish ones: in performance terms, the film is a festival of arm-waving and expostulation, areas where he has always excelled.
If anything links the segments thematically beyond their setting, it's Allen's absurdist view of life, which sees the arbitrary and the miraculous as two sides of the same coin. One story is a satire on the cult of celebrity, with Roberto Benigni as an ordinary man who, like Byron, awakes to find himself famous: reporters crowd around him, firing off inane questions about what he had for breakfast or his mundane office job.
Another story centres on a provincial married couple who face separate temptations on a trip to the metropolis: the wife (Alessandra Mastronardi) with her favorite movie star (Antonio Albanese), the husband (Alessandro Tiberi) with a bombshell hooker (Penelope Cruz, making the most of the Sophia Loren role). When the pair are reunited, it's hard to say what they've learned – except that even the strictest principles can bend at the right moment.
Morally speaking, Allen's absurdism can seem like a form of evasion: if nothing has any meaning, that lets us all off the hook. Something like this is conveyed in the film's most interesting if problematic section, with Jesse Eisenberg as an American architecture student lured away from his adoring girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) by a bohemian actress (Ellen Page) whose penchant for erotic tall tales and highbrow name-dropping is portrayed as supernaturally irresistible.
Fairly typically for Allen, this love triangle is viewed solely from the guy's point of view. Gerwig eventually fades into the background, and Page is reduced to playing a phony whose inauthentic gestures mask a fascinating void. Also typical of Allen is the touch of magic realism which adds a fourth character to the mix: a distinguished architect (Alec Baldwin) who lurks on the sidelines like a paunchy Jiminy Cricket, shaking his head as the student succumbs to forces beyond his control.
If the psychologist played by Davis could comment on this all-knowing figure, she might see him as an imaginary father substitute, enabling Eisenberg's character to rationalise his betrayal by turning Page into an unlikely femme fatale. Or perhaps it's the other way round: perhaps the older man has imagined the younger one, in an effort to come to terms with his own guilty past. Allen himself would probably say he was just spinning a yarn – but if he really wanted us to stop analysing him, he would have quit the business long ago.