… keep laughing, Clown …

With breathtakingly beautiful photography — and the people are as fascinating to see as the city — Woody Allen weaves together stories of lovers, Romans and visitors against the background of Rome.  As Allen, who acts in the film, tells us — along with a few other things he wants us to know — it’s colored with a sweet nostalgia.

A young architect at the start of is career and his life of love, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) is torn between his beautiful normal girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig) and her best friend Monica (Ellen Page), a baby-faced over wise package of seduction who looks cute and talks dirty-suggestive.  Alec Baldwin is on hand as an architect in mid life, John, who retraces his own youthful time in Rome looking over Jack’s shoulder — warning him of pitfalls and amused by the human comedy, with the delicious back-to-the past mystery and flavor of Midnight in Paris.

Talk about fantasy — Leopoldo Pisanello (Roberto Benigni) is an ordinary man swept up for no particular reason into a world of fame and glamour — a hilarious study of media celebrity make-or-break.  Out of the blue, he walks the red carpet at movie premiers, effortlessly gets impossible to get reservations at fancy restaurants, has gorgeous women throwing themselves at him, and is interviewed on tv, his every choice, every detail of his existence — does he shave before or after breakfast? does he wear boxers or briefs — a national mania, that is, until someone else gets “picked”.  It’s a wonderful if outlandish satire played straight — everyman down-to-earth and vulnerable — by Benigni.  Life dishes out heartaches to everybody — celebrities and unknowns — Leopoldo’s erstwhile chauffeur tells him when the glory is over, but being a celebrity is better.  Thank you, Woody, for that info.

A newly married couple, Antonio and Milly, arrive in Rome but chance separates them and sets powerful temptation in their way — and what seductions these are.  Antonio wins a pre-paid prize — Penelope Cruz as Anna, a call girl — simply gorgeous in a red dress, and with wonderful comic timing in the part.  Cruz is great.  Milly — well it’s a little complicated — is romanced by a famous movie star, Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese) from whom we learn that you don’t have to be handsome to be incredibly seductive (and it’s in himself, not just his fame and power).  It’s not how things turn out for her, though — what happens is even funnier.

A pretty young American girl, Hayley (Alison Pill), looking for street directions, is aided by a handsome young Italian, named, of course, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) who offers to take her to her destination — and that’s not much fantasy except here they get engaged!  For me, the sheer side-splitting laughs of the film spin out of their story.  Jerry (Woody Allen), Hayley’s father, an opera director fighting retirement, age and death — Allen all the way — arriving with his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) to “meet the family,” shakes hands with Michelangelo’s father, a hard-working undertaker Giancarlo (the great tenor Fabio Armiliato) and from there we go to sheer wild hilarity.  Because Jerry discovers that Giancarlo has a great voice but only under very specific circumstances — he has to be singing in the shower* — which the entrepreneurial Jerry manages to reproduce at La Scala.  There Giancarlo sings Pagliacci, who clowns through his grief — a glancing Woody Allen self-portrait.  And the great singing that fills the screen and the theater — that’s part of the thrill of the movie too.  Wow!

Leaving the theater, I heard people say, “Well, it’s entertaining,” in a sort of downplaying way.  Maybe so.  I thought the sheer intensity of the fantasy and abundance of its fulfillment, rooted in truly observed characters and satire, sends the film soaring.  This film casts humor into sheer joy.

* Quiz:  In what other theatrical story does a character sing onstage in the shower?  (And is that where Woody got the idea?)  For answer — to the first question — click here.

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