For a filmmaker who has repeatedly taken as his subject the jumbled, chaotic world of artists, Woody Allen has amazingly little of any freshness or depth to say about the creative life. I started to get nervous back in 1978, when he unveiled Interiors, his drama about a New York family of people obsessed with achieving creative perfection and always feeling that they fall short of it. The dialogue seemed so stilted and self-conscious that at times I thought Allen was offering up a parody of Bergmanesque angst. Since then, with the exception of 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters, which revealed some rather funny and touching truths about another New York family of artists, he's been spinning his wheels. The dramatic situations he sets up have a peculiarly artificial scent about them, like one of those model apartments where you can smell the newness of the carpeting and furniture. He deals in types and clichéd situations, and no matter how cleverly certain scenes are brought off, everything feels too worked out and predictable. (This was true to an extent even in Hannah and Her Sisters; the only scene that genuinely surprised me was the one in which Maureen O'Sullivan poured out her drunken resentment of her husband, played by Lloyd Nolan.)
I was going to skip Allen's new film, To Rome with Love. I didn't, for the simple reason that I was drawn by the opera elements in the plot. Allen plays Jerry, an avant-garde stage director who has been reviled for tampering with the classics. (One of his famous productions is a Rigoletto with everyone dressed as white mice — a detail that, like practically everything else in the film, isn't nearly as funny as it's meant to be). Jerry and his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis), travel to Rome to meet the Italian man their daughter plans to marry. The boy's father is an undertaker named Giancarlo (played by tenor Fabio Armiliato). When Giancarlo steps into the shower and begins singing, Jerry, standing outside in the hallway, hears evidence of a remarkable voice, and Jerry hectors him to turn pro. The trouble is that Giancarlo can't sing well except when he's in the shower: when Jerry organizes an audition for him in front of a group of top-flight opera managers, Giancarlo blows it completely. Jerry comes up with a solution: recitals and stage productions will be engineered so that he can sing while showering. The gag is mildly amusing the first time but less so in its many repetitions. And really, the whole conceit of the talented amateur being terrified to perform in the professional arena is old-hat. (Remember Marilyn Horne guesting on TV's The Odd Couple, as the opera singer who couldn't open her mouth unless her pal Oscar, played by Jack Klugman, was in the room?) Allen skips lightly over the opera material as if pleased just to show us another facet of his cultural fluency; he never really gets into it at all — never does anything truly inventive with it.
The main raisons d'être for To Rome with Love are Darius Khondji's lovely, terra-cotta-tinged scenes of Rome, the funny individual moments contributed by Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni and Judy Davis and the film's biggest surprise — the relaxed, appealing screen presence of Fabio Armiliato.