When in Rome: Woody Allen’s latest rehashes old themes in an even older city

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A chance encounter leads to a quick marriage, an ordinary man is followed around the city by a pack of paparazzi and there’s a young guy trying to justify his impending act of infidelity. The word “pseudo-intellectual” makes an appearance at some point as does an old Jewish New Yorker who contemplates his own mortality. That’s right, it’s Woody Allen’s annual offering to his angsty faithful who, after nearly five decades of hits and misses must surely be counted among the most loyal cinemagoers in history. Of course, after last year’s critical and commercial success, “Midnight in Paris,” Allen’s die-hards might be sharing the cinema with casual cinemagoers keen to see if lightning can strike twice.

2012’s effort is called “To Rome with Love,” a title arrived at after “Nero Fiddled” and “ The Bop Decameron” — which the film was called until earlier this year. That last title suggests a relationship between the film and Boccaccio’s seminal work, “The Decameron.” But instead of finding connections with Renaissance stories, it’s far easier to see this film in terms of Allen’s previous work.

Roberto Benigni’s eccentric portrayal of a man who wakes up to find himself a celebrity simply for being himself has scenes that could have been lifted out of “Stardust Memories” and “Celebrity.” The story of a naïve young couple being corrupted by outrageous circumstance smacks of the Mia Farrow characters in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Radio Days.” Meanwhile, the plot of Jesse Eisenberg’s adulterous attraction to Ellen Page has dialogue lifted from “Husbands and Wives,” “Manhattan” and … well, nearly every other Woody Allen film, actually. The plot involving Allen himself, as an aging director trying to turn a singing mortician into an opera star marks the welcome return of Allen to the role he immortalized — the lovable hypochondriac. See: “Annie Hall,” “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

So yes, “To Rome With Love” might not be the most original film out at the moment. It’s a pity that Allen could not develop the affirmative themes he had worked on in “Midnight in Paris” which seemed pertinent in a year saturated with celluloid nostalgia. Nevertheless, “To Rome With Love” is a highly enjoyable film. It’s funny, for one. Roberto Benigni’s po-faced television interview about his mundane breakfast choices are hilarious and there is fun to be had in seeing Allen play the ‘Woody Allen Character’ after the admirable stewardship of Larry David and Owen Wilson.

However, seeing Allen on screen revived memories of his last outing as actor/director of the camera in 2006’s “Scoop.” Though there is nothing wrong with Allen’s performance, but like “Scoop,” “To Rome with Love” is not his finest hour in the director’s chair. The film is too long. The many scenes of young couples wandering around Rome are beautiful, but redundant. Alec Baldwin’s is-he-real-is-he-not character — perhaps Allen’s version of the Greek Chorus — is enjoyable but unnecessary, as Eisenberg, Page and Gerwig are all capable enough actors to articulate emotions and motivations without Baldwin’s interjections. The general problem with the film is  perhaps Allen’s inability to reconcile his affection for what is enjoyable with what is necessary.

“Midnight in Paris” had an alacrity to it, which sometimes bordered on excessive, as though Allen’s bohemianism was written in the didactic language of his comrade-in-francophilia, Oliver Stone. If the film is about anything, it is how different things seem from another point of view. While Allen might be turning to his old material, in the golden sunlight of the eternal city his characters are confounded with unlikely knowledge rendered from unlikely experiences. Those who would never dream of infidelity are exposed to its seductions, egalitarian communists are wooed by fame, as are bourgeois men of the middle-class.

What is rather rewarding for the jaded filmgoer is the way Allen refuses to punish his characters for their ‘sins.’ Infidelity becomes something to be enjoyed and learned from and fame and fortune actually do bring happiness! In an age in which Hollywood comedies seem to have adopted the conventional ‘family-first,’ ‘follow your heart’ attitudes towards fame, fortune and fidelity found in more mediocre Disney movies, it’s refreshing to see that a 72-year-old filmmaker is still willing to challenge the conventional wisdom.

Sure, It might not be new ground for Allen, but the fact that a filmmaker within the mainstream is making comedies that flagrantly invert our perception of sin and vice is heartening. If “To Rome With Love” is a victim of anything, it is that it was preceded by the oeuvre of one of the world’s finest and quietly daring filmmakers.