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“La Dolce Vita”

Grade: A- (SEE IT)

FOLLOWERS OF WOODY ALLEN’S long and important career have likely found themselves haunted by a tennis ball.  Central to his last great drama, “Match Point” (2005), the tennis ball is seen during the opening credits, being batted back and forth, with the film’s killer intoning: “People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck.  It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control.”  So much depends upon where that unpredictable little ball lands, and matched later by a wedding ring (a crucial bit of evidence which helps the film’s homicidal anti-hero to escape unpunished), Allen’s “Match Point” suggests that chance, rather than religious notions of prescribed order and continuity, governs the universe.

If “Match Point” milked the related roles of chance, luck, and contingency for murder and existential mayhem in “Match Point,” Allen’s new comedy, “To Rome with Love,” plays the selfsame themes for laughs.  If you sense the film’s big idea – that romance, too, is determined by the undeterminable – you’ll be grateful Allen has furthered developed his atheistic world-view but in gentler ways.  “To Rome with Love,” which follows on the heels of last year’s best film, “Midnight in Paris,” is comprised of at least thirteen major characters and four parallel narratives.  Even the combination of those disparate but related stories is driven by randomness.

First, there’s Ellen Page as Monica, a seductive actress who threatens to come between two American students studying in Rome (played by Jesse Eisenberg and Greta Gerwig).  (Actresses are duplicitous divas to be avoided in all of Allen’s films.)  Second, there’s Judy Davis and Woody Allen himself as tourists visiting their daughter and new Italian beau Michelangelo whose name Allen can’t pronounce correctly (Alison Pill, who played Zelda Fitzgerald in “Midnight in Paris” and Flavio Parenti, respectively).  Third, there’s Leopoldo, the Italian pencil-pusher who inexplicably becomes a celebrity overnight, and lastly, two more Italians (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) also threatened by another woman (a prostitute played with panache by Penélope Cruz).  For once, someone has written a role for an Italian actor that doesn’t typecast them as the erotic tiger.  These two, not to mention the always excellent Eisenberg, don’t make the mistake Will Ferrell did in 2006’s “Melinda and Melinda” by channeling rather than simply impersonating Woody Allen’s famous persona.

Most, if not all, of these storylines revel in silliness.  Allen plays a former opera director who hears Michelangelo’s father singing in the shower and insists that he take stage despite the fact that Giancarlo (played by real-life operatic tenor Fabio Armiliato) will need an actual shower on stage to overcome stage-fright.  As Leopoldo, Roberto Benigni helps to blur the boundary between romantic comedy and satiric farce; he wakes up one day, à la “Groundhog Day,” to find himself suddenly in the spotlight where the most mundane details of his day, like whether he likes he bread toasted or not and where he scratches himself, attract national scrutiny.   As an older version of Jesse Eisenberg’s character, Alec Baldwin is something of a characterological question mark: is he the guardian angel Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life” or a Shakespearean spectre?  All the great films of 2012 thus far have been comedies – “Bernie,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” and now this – but I doubt you will spot a smarter meditation on happenstance this year.

As with “Midnight in Paris,” wherein the City of Lights is as much a character as the spellbound humans contained inside it, Rome itself is undeniably a player here.  At one point, Alessandra Mastronardi is as turned-around and lost as Owen Wilson’s Gil is in “Midnight,” and Darius Khondji’s splendid camera (also turned-around) pulls a 360 to show us the tawny exteriors of the Eternal City, always somewhere between ruins and romance.   Who else but Woody Allen keeps giving us that very modern feeling of being every bit the flaneur?  That being said, not all of “To Rome with Love” is perfect: just a little of Benigni clowning around in the street is more than enough and the film’s loose-ends take too long to wrap up.

One third of that terrific trifecta – Spielberg, Scorsese – Woody Allen has been writing love-letters to his favorite cities for some time, and though “To Rome with Love,” may not rise to the unmatched “Manhattan” (1979) or even the London of “Match Point,” his latest is still a thinking person’s Roman holiday.