I have to admit to a Pavlovian response whenever a Woody Allen movie begins. As soon as the spartan credits begin to roll – always white Windsor Light Condensed laid over a black background – I smile, flooded with memories of Allen’s distinctive greatness. Remarkably, my enthusiasm has never been tempered by failure. Even after a string of bombs (and he’s had several), I continue to follow his next work like an obedient lemming toppling down a cliff, hoping against hope for the next “Manhattan.” Then eventually, a “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” or a “Midnight in Paris” emerges, reminding us unrepentant Allen freaks of his full potential and thanking us for our fealty.
It’s that latter film that has anticipations high for his new release, “To Rome With Love,” opening today across South Florida. “Midnight in Paris” was both critical success and box-office sensation, making more money than any other Allen film in history. So chances are, it won’t just be the maestro’s dedicated niche of admirers lining up to see “To Rome With Love,” raising the stakes for this Italian-set ensemble comedy.
Once again fetishizing Western Europe with cinematography more ravishing than postcards, “To Rome With Love” is a portmanteau film of four unconnected narratives performed by an A-list cast. Judy Davis and Allen himself (appearing on-camera for the first time in six years) arrive in Rome to visit their daughter (Alison Pill), who met a handsome bachelor there on her summer sojourn; Jesse Eisenberg is a young architect whose relationship to his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) is threatened by the arrival of her sexually uninhibited best friend (Ellen Page); Robert Benigni is a middle-class Italian who inexplicably becomes an overnight celebrity; and Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi are provincial honeymooners who lose track of each other and embark on romantic (mis?)adventures.
Like “Midnight in Paris,” “To Rome With Love” trades in fantasy, surreality and nostalgia. The stories progress at their own speed and by their own rules, usually slipping into existential wormholes or Brechtian vortices. This device works best in the segment with Eisenberg and Page, when a pitch-perfect Alec Baldwin transitions from physical character (a successful architect on holiday) to a metaphysical construct (Eisenberg’s unconscious), communicating with both Eisenberg and Page but existing outside of time. Baldwin’s sarcastic premonitions are the inverse of Humphrey Bogart’s crackerjack advice in “Play it Again, Sam;” instead of helping his troubled young romantic get the girl, he sets out to dissuade him from temptation. On the other hand, Page, cast subversively as a sexpot, is frequently insufferable, though most of this is intentional. (One of her sample lines of dialogue: “There’s something sexy about a man who is sensitive to the agonies of existence.”)
Magic also imbues the Benigni story – a light satire on celebutante culture – and that of the young Italian honeymooners, who act out old Hollywood chestnuts of mistaken identity and right-place, wrong-time contrivances in their prolonged separation. The Allen and Davis portion is the most traditionally Allen, featuring deadpan psychiatry jokes and well-delivered but musty one-liners about Communists and leper colonies. But Allen’s signature writing style is apparent throughout, even in subtitles, and “To Rome With Love” is often very funny.
But it’s not very good. The problem here, as with other recent Allen titles, is its indefensible sexism. Of the main female characters in the film, only Judy Davis seems to wield any power not connected to her loins. Penelope Cruz is cast as a prostitute (what a shocker), but she’s not the film’s only trollop. The women in “To Rome With Love” exist merely as sexual objects, ready and willing to jump into bed with any man, whether the man desires it or not. This is even true in the Benigni segment, in which the stupefied office clerk is confronted with a never-ending stream of sexual partners. If you already feel that Allen is as pervishly dirty on-screen as he is off it, “To Rome With Love” will give you more ammunition than any previous title to defend this claim.
Which is a real shame, because it’s funny. At any rate, I’m already anticipating his next one.
It’s also a man’s world in “Headhunters,” further proof that Hollywood does not own the market on expensive, bloody action movies. This Norwegian import, which opens today at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, follows Roger Brown (Askel Hennie), a smarmy headhunter at a corporate firm and the kind of guy you want to punch every second he’s onscreen. His charm is nonexistent, but he’s managed to secure a trophy wife and a freelance gig, moonlighting as an art thief who breaks into homes and replaces wealthy patrons’ masterpieces with forgeries.
You can see where this is going miles away. Roger’s comeuppance is inevitable, and the term “headhunter” will soon adopt a second meaning after a potential patsy with a priceless, Nazi-era Rubens painting is not what it seems to be.
“Headhunters” is directed with bland, formulaic invisibility by Morten Tyldum. His movie progresses with head-shakingly foreseeable plot twists, manipulative music cues, lachrymose emotional pandering and dialogue recycled from ‘80s action cinema. But by the time Roger finds himself on the run – suggesting the Norwegian “Taken” – this grisly spectacle finally develops a reason to exist, in its elaborate, bracingly executed set pieces. There’s a terrific shoot-out involving a carton of milk, an impaled attack dog, an escape from a crime scene via tractor and a brutal domestic brawl between Roger and a former lover. Roger’s escapes grow increasingly incredulous – Superman would have died 10 times over in the course of this 105 minutes – but by the time the arrogant art thief is reduced to a naked, hairless wretch bleeding from his entire body, you find yourself caring for the guy’s safety. Which, if you can make it that far, is a stunning achievement.