Woody Allen, Penélope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg, Alec Baldwin
By Aditi Saxton
HIS LEGION fans will watch this film, because it is, after all, Woody Allen. As he set out to make a movie about fame, the purist who handcrafted Zelig (’83) say, would have peeled away at that onion of irony. The cult of celebrity, the exponential quality of its banality, the now near complete severance with just cause and reason, are fresh and fertile fields for layered metaphors to bloom. Allen’s earlier self would have chopped, diced and julienned the entertainment universe, soused in its paradox of reality-television. He would have sliced for good measure at the frenzied feeding hordes. Now, with a yearly presentation he’s happy to hack.
Fame has its sameness, a self-perpetuating insistence on giving the people what they want. With the last Academy-endorsed hit, Allen is a Johnny-come-lately to the box-office popularity party, but he’d already turned cloak on the troops that followed him through the salt marshes of avant-garde.
He knows it too. Of the four spliced story arcs he claims the funniest — as Jerry, a retired music arranger who discovers that his prospective inlaw, a mortician (Fabio Armiliato), has a mean operatic tenor that only soars in the shower. Soapsuds and slapstick aside, Jerry’s equation of retirement with death is a thin, garbled apology for Allen carrying on because he must, because the end of creation is the end of life. His old weltschmerz — a cynical misanthropy that he infused with boulevardier wit — wouldn’t have settled for such sentimental sap.
A mimetic, schmaltzy traffic cop opens the film as omniscient narrator. Cue tiddlywinks score; Volare, if it wasn’t entirely clear that the aesthetic is tuned to twee. It’s an almost admirable determination to drift on eddies of light and frothy without sinking once into substance. Later, a chauffeur declaims on the travails of the renowned and the rest of us, with the profound pontification that if you had to choose, it’s better to be famous. It is a stilted, stodgy paraphrase of a well-worn Oscar Wilde bon mot: the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. This is both the premise and the justification for the entire film.
Tuned to a twee aesthetic, it is an almost admirable determination to drift on eddies of light and frothy without sinking into substance
The actors, usually the buttress of Allen’s films, fall under such heavy siege of platitude. Owen Wilson seeking hallucinatory sanctuary in Midnight in Pariswas a tenebrous take on his real life and even our Frieda Pinto’s vapid glam exotica in You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger was partially redeemed by her Slumdog past. Here, ‘Cruz the Muse’ Penélope, playing a hooker so hot she doesn’t need a heart of gold, reprises her Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona persona, albeit in impressively fluent Italian. Roberto Benigni has his most irritating outing yet; a whole role based on his chair jumping, hair-pulling Oscar capers. Alec Baldwin, as a soothsayer to his youthful doppelganger’s (Eisenberg) life has less nuance than on a single sketch of 30 Rock. OnlyJuno’s Ellen Page as ingénue is imaginatively cast. Until she has to essay the auteur’s alter-ego, a stock role in all his films. Then she makes for a rather wooden Woody. The enervated ensemble is propped on a backdrop of Rome, like a postcard tackily split into a quadrant of panels, none doing justice to their vista.
If there’s a point of edification it’s that they are pasted onto the eternal city, both a blandishment and a rebuke to the pursuit of fleeting fortune. This billet doux will still get tied in blue ribbons and stowed in the treasure chest of Allen’s work. But, it’s a hasty scribble, perfunctory in form, sugary in content, a postscript to his more meaningful missives.
Aditi Saxton is Features Editor, Tehelka.