To Rome with Love: Woody Allen’s Comedy (Part 2)
While in Rome on holiday, John (Alec Baldwin), a famous American architect, explores the neighborhood he lived in during his student days. There he runs into a young architectural student, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who recognizes John from a newspaper photo, and invites him over to his apartment for coffee with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig). John soon realizes he may have lived in the very same building as Jack. Sally tells Jack that her actress friend Monica (Ellen Page) has just broken up with her boyfriend and is coming to Rome for a change of scenery. Sally describes Monica as sensual, brainy, neurotic, funny—a real man magnet.
Says Gerwig: “I think Sally is nervous about Monica, but she thinks that if she just lays out all her fears at the beginning—‘I want to say all the crazy things I’m worried about’—it will act almost like a talisman and then nothing will happen.” John warns Jack not to fall in love with Monica: “He probably knows that Jack will never listen,” says Baldwin, “but he can’t stop trying. Jack is on a course that may lead to disaster. It’s like Jack is playing in traffic and John wants him to get out of the road.” Says Eisenberg: “To have John giving him this practical, but also jaded advice only emboldens Jack. It makes him even more passionate about pursuing Monica.”
There is also the element of John seeing Jack as himself as a young man in Rome and Jack’s story is really John’s experience in the past seen now by John with the clarity of hindsight and the understanding of how foolish he was once and how shallow and unworthy of his love was Monica. Still, the attraction trumps logic.
Monica loses no time living up to her reputation by dazzling Jack with the lurid details of her wild and unconventional sex life, as well as her seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of art. “Monica is free and has a kind of fluidity in the moment, and I think that’s a very appealing thing to people,” says Page. “Maybe it’s because we all want to feel free. But ultimately people like her don’t necessarily make great partners because there isn’t a lot of solidness.”
Says Allen: “You can’t corral people like Monica. They’re too desirable and everybody wants them and they learn that early on. It’s very difficult to have a long-term stable relationship with that kind of person.” While John does everything he can to forewarn Jack, the inevitable happens and he succumbs to Monica’s charms. “He’s in a youthful, romantic bubble, so of course he’s drawn to her,” says Eisenberg. “She’s so self-involved, and her self-involvement makes her so interesting, that when she shines her light anywhere near him, he feels immediately and disproportionately excited.”
Throughout, John hovers around Jack (but is John just watching himself as a youth?), slipping in and out of scenes, commenting on Monica and Sally as if they weren’t there, leaving the question of what exactly is going on quite open. This is something that Allen has done deliberately. “You can look at it two different ways,” he says, “but the safest way is that Alec takes a walk down memory lane and he’s meeting his youth in spirit, remembering what had gone on, what his feelings were, the mistakes he made, what the desperations were, and having that as a memory he never got over. Jack is John’s youth without being young John in flashback.”
Says Page: “Different people will perceive it in different ways. Maybe people who are older will look at it through the perspective of John and maybe people who are younger will be more attached to the immediacy of the interactions between Monica, Jack and Sally, and John will seem like an outsider.” No matter how one interprets the story, the heart of it is about the wisdom of age looking back at the callowness of youth. Says Baldwin: “In my opinion, and from my experience, looking back at our younger selves, at youth in general is alternately moving and appalling. We see younger people and think, ‘I can’t believe I did that or said that.’ But it’s part of life to grow and change: sometimes slowly; sometimes more quickly.”
Many of the characters in “To Rome With Love” share a desire to be appreciated, particularly if they are relatively ordinary themselves. This need is illustrated in Jerry and Leopoldo’s stories, but also in the strategy that Luca Salta employs to romance Milly: he tells her that he values her opinions on cultural matters, an acknowledgement that her husband has never given her. Jerry’s son-in-law to-be Michelangelo keeps the subject of every conversation on himself and his altruistic views, which makes him feel special and important.
Likewise, Jack’s self-esteem swells when he believes that a woman with the sparkle of Monica would choose him as a lover. “Unavailable women are like catnip to some men, particularly when they are younger,” says Baldwin. “You don’t actually want them. You just want to win the game. It’s about ego.” Page thinks that Monica is also on a constant quest to be validated by the opinions of others: “When Monica is engaging with people, she always has this air of striving to be the intellectual. I perceive that that might have something to do with her insecurity and her need to feel important, as in ‘Please like me! I’m smart and I know this really good quote!’”
This fundamental need in the human psyche to be acknowledged could be the basis of people’s craving for fame. “We live in a society where fame is this completely cherished and worshipped thing,” says Page, “even though it’s constantly being revealed to us that’s it’s typically not a healthy lifestyle for people and it can even disintegrate them. People pursue the idea that: ‘this is going to make me happy; this is going to make me feel important; this is going to make me feel grounded and safe and powerful.’ The irony is that the thing that people are expecting to fill them is what ultimately makes them feel quite empty.”
Says Allen: “People desire fame for the same reason they pursue anything. Everything we do, whether it’s fame, money, pretty clothes, possessions, artistic or athletic skill, whatever it is, what you’re trying to do is attract a member of the opposite sex, as disguised as that may be in the actual action.”
The stories found in the movie explore the eternal quest for love and sex in its many variations: from a betrothal and a honeymoon through assorted acts of infidelity; from tender lovemaking to more spontaneous liaisons; from the absurd and ridiculous to the poignant and profound; from the exhilaration of newfound love all the way to heartbreak and its aftermath. These romantic interludes play out simultaneously in this ancient and bustling city, in every part of town, in the past and in the present. They will carry on into the future. Countless people have found love on the streets of Rome—these are but a few.
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