Movies: To Rome with Love

I liked this movie.

It was weird.

And it didn't try to explain its own weirdness, really; it just let the weird hang there, pretending to be normal.

The movie is made up of four story lines that are marginally related thematically by the idea of wish fulfillment. Or at least that's how I took it. In one plot, Roberto Benigni plays average office clerk Leopoldo, who says to his co-workers, "If you ask me . . ." to which they reply, "Nobody ever asks you." Next thing Leopoldo knows, he's being asked everything, all the time: what he had for breakfast, how he prefers to shave, boxers or briefs. He is suddenly famous and for no apparent reason. He shouts at the journalists and paparazzi to go away. And when they do go and find a new target for their attentions, Leopoldo realizes he misses the spotlight and all the perks it afforded him.

In another story, Woody Allen plays, well, Woody Allen if he were a retired classical music manager who'd once staged avant garde takes on famous operas. He and his wife have traveled to Rome to meet their daughter's fiancé and his family. Retirement doesn't sit well with Woody (calling himself Jerry), and when he discovers his daughter's fiancé's father is a fantastic singer (played by tenor Fabio Armiliato), he is determined to put the man on stage. But it turns out Giancarlo can only sing in the shower. What to do? Stage all the productions around showers, of course. Giancarlo is hailed as a new Caruso, but Jerry is labeled an imbecile for his ridiculous staging. After having his moment, however, Giancarlo is happy to go back to his obscure life as an undertaker.

Also pursuing celebrity: Monica (Ellen Page), who comes to Rome to visit her friend Sally and to get over her most recent heartbreak (the boy was gay, no matter how hard Monica tried to make him not be). Monica's goal is to be an actress. Sally frets that her boyfriend Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) will fall in love with Monica, something that seems to happen wherever Monica goes . . . And he does. The somewhat bizarre streak in this particular story line is the sometime appearance of Alec Baldwin as John, who seems to be the grown-up version of Jack, though this is not made explicit. Jack is a young architectural student, and John turns up on the street where Jack lives, saying, "I used to live here when I was a student." Jack offers to show John around, and then throughout their story, John sometimes appears to warn Jack—and sometimes Monica—about what is happening between them. "I know how this ends," John says at one point. (It ends with Monica scrapping plans to run away with Jack when she is offered a part in a movie with a hot star and cute director.)

And while Monica is trading up, so is Milly, a young newlywed in Rome with her husband Antonio. Of all the stories, this one was the most strained. Milly and Antonio are moving to Rome so Antonio can hopefully begin work in the family business. It is very important he make a good impression with his bevy of cousins. Milly wants to make a good impression, too, so she wanders out to get her hair done. And gets lost trying to find a salon. Stumbles onto a movie set, meets many of her favorite film stars, is taken to lunch by an actor she idolizes, and he sweet-talks the naive young thing into coming up to his hotel room. Milly finds herself in the old should-she-or-shouldn't-she predicament. It's an awkward set up all around, really, and the actor is hardly some handsome rogue; he's balding and paunchy. Maybe I've worked with enough actors that I just don't know what it means to be starstruck, but Milly's naiveté is beyond belief. And is she really attracted to the man, or is it the idea of him, of being with a celebrity?

The story gets stranger. Milly goes into the bathroom to try and figure out whether or not to sleep with the actor only to be accosted by a burglar. The actor leaves his jewelry and hies off, and Milly . . . Decides to sleep with the burglar instead.

Meanwhile, Antonio accidentally gets sent a prostitute named Anna (Penelope Cruz) and is forced to use her as a stand-in for the absent Milly when his uncles and aunts arrive to evaluate him and take him off to meet the rest of the family businessmen. And of course Antonio finally ends up sampling Anna's wares. I guess if there's adultery on both sides, you break even? Is it the whole, "What s/he doesn't know . . ." rule? In the end, the whole of Milly's and Antonio's stories are so manufactured, especially next to the equally strange but somehow more organic tales of the other characters, that it is difficult to enjoy it.

But three out of four isn't too bad. And as I said, there are themes of wish fulfillment (or be careful what you wish for), and also of celebrity (something many do wish for, either to become or to be with), and then of adultery too, which occurs in three of the four story lines . . . I could parse it out a number of ways, but I am tired, and I enjoyed the movie too much to dissect it. If I remember correctly, critics did not wholly enjoy To Rome with Love, but maybe that's simply because Midnight in Paris was so good. A tough act to follow. I like them both, but differently, though the same thread of magical realism and blurred lines between fantasy and reality runs through both. There's a little more real in Rome. But only a little. It reminds me of all the strange things that always happen to me, the things that cause my friends to shake their heads and say, "Only you, M. These things only ever happen to you."

. . . Maybe I'm living in a Woody Allen movie.

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