Woody Allen has always been the quintessential New Yorker. Born in the the Big Apple, the legendary filmmaker and comedian has never lived anywhere else, and, until recently, it's been the primary setting for all his work. His disdain for travel was notorious. “I'm astounded by people who want to 'know' the universe," Allen once said. "It's hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.”
But like many aging baby boomers, Allen got the travel bug. Now 76, he has finally discovered there's a big, wide world out there — and has made it his personal stomping ground for his work. Allen's latest comedy, To Rome With Love, is his seventh film in as many years to be set in a European capital.
That’s a huge change in scenery. Beginning in 1969, when he wrote, directed and starred in Take the Money and Run, Allen almost always cast his beloved New York in a starring role. His Gotham oeuvre includes Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Bullets Over Broadway, Broadway Danny Rose and the Oscar-winning Annie Hall. (Forced to visit Los Angeles, a place he detests, Allen's character announces, “I don't want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light.”)
Then, in 2005, a funny thing happened. At an age when others retire, Allen rejuvenated his career by leaving home. The prolific filmmaker discovered Europe, beginning with Match Point, a romantic crime drama set in London that scored well with critics and moviegoers.
He followed with three more London-based movies (Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). Then he headed to Barcelona for 2008's Vicky Christina Barcelona. Last summer, he enjoyed the biggest box-office success of his career with Midnight in Paris, which showcased the City of Light and grossed $151 million worldwide. (In 2009, he briefly returned to New York for the mediocre Whatever Works, which starred cranky Larry David as a Woody stand-in.)
Allen's newfound worldliness, however, was practically forced upon him. The motivation: money. Even though his films are low-budget by Hollywood studio standards, where the average movie now costs $80 million, the ever-diminishing grosses for Allen’s films in the 1990s and early aughts made it harder for him to raise financing from U.S. sources.
Into the breach stepped European financiers, who were more attuned to Allen’s sensibility and weren’t necessarily looking to buy a piece of the next Spider-Man or Transformers. In return for the foreign investment, however, Allen agreed to set each new film on the continent. And thus a career was reborn — the same, only different.
To Rome With Love is further evidence that change has been good for Allen. The film weaves in and out of a quartet of distinct stories, each set in the crowded streets and piazzas of the Eternal City. One plotline involves a famous American architect (Alec Baldwin) who once lived in Rome and has returned to give romantic advice to a young American architectural student (Jesse Eisenberg); a second focuses on a visiting American music producer (Woody Allen) who thinks he has discovered the next big opera star in his daughter’s prospective Italian father-in-law; a third chronicles the farcical mishaps of a newlywed, provincial Italian couple who’ve come to Rome for their honeymoon; and the fourth is about a milquetoast clerk (Roberto Benigni) who for no apparent reason becomes an instant celebrity, with paparazzi following him everywhere (“What did you have for breakfast?” a reporter demands).
The movie is often funny and occasionally wise. It also shows that Allen has mellowed with age. In Rome, he offers a heartwarming view of humanity — it may not be quite as rosy as the gorgeous, soft light that bathes nearly every scene, but it's as close to optimistic as this avowed neurotic has ever been. Allen is both gentler and more generous toward his characters these days, portraying their flaws as foibles, not glaring faults.
Obviously, when in Rome, Allen did as the Romans do: He enjoyed himself. By seeing his Rome, you will, too.
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