Like most people, I enjoyed Woody Allen’s last movie, Midnight in Paris, but I had to agree with its critics’ chief objection to it: Its understanding of, and engagement with, the writers and intellectuals who were at the center of its plot was shallow and skimpy, beneath even a Cliffs’ Notes level. (Let me put it another way: Allen’s presentation of e.g., Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein in that movie shows as much familiarity with the work of those writers as his jokes about conservatives show an intimate understanding of real-life conservatives.) This was not a serious problem for the film, though, because of Allen’s visual mastery (which had, in Paris, an ideal object) and his ability to keep a social comedy rattling on at a rapid-enough pace.
I am delighted, therefore, that his new movie offers — in addition to all the usual Woody Allen pleasures — a knowing wink to the harshest critics. To Rome With Love, which opened last Friday, is a visual treat (Rome may be my favorite city; my mother grew up there and I still tend to view it through her eyes, and based on the film I think Allen must have a similar affection for it) and the sex-farce social-comedy aspects are done even better than they were in Midnight in Paris. But here’s the wink: One of the central characters is a pseudo-intellectual parading her paper-thin knowledge of art and literature. As played by the delightful Ellen Page, she is also a wonderful send-up of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” cliché so prominent in recent movies. A young man (Jesse Eisenberg) starts falling in love with her, but a worldly-wise Greek-chorus character (Alec Baldwin) warns him every step of the way that she’s bad news. And here’s the part that really amazed me: She is not presented in the movie with misogynistic caricature, but basically with sympathetic indulgence — as if Woody Allen were saying, Yes, some of the criticisms (of me, of her) are true, nobody’s perfect; but wouldn’t it be better if everybody lightened up? (Let me anticipate an objection: Surely even the darkest villain would be appealing if played by Ellen Page? I take the point, but no: In the 2005 movie Hard Candy, her character was utterly terrifying. That was a good movie, but only people with really strong stomachs should watch it.)
In general, To Rome With Love is a sweet tribute to the Eternal City; recommended.