Monday, May 13, 2013

To Rome with Love -- fame, lust and casual sex

Director: Woody Allen, 2012 (R)

Woody Allen’s latest comedy is a mish-mash of four stories that have nothing really to do with one another but are woven together as though they are interconnected. Set in the Eternal City, Allen fails to do for Rome what he did for Paris in has last film (Midnight in Paris). Sadly, his comedy here is a little lackluster, with charm scattered sparingly among the stories. And Woody’s characteristic atheism comes across strongly (“I can’t unclench when there’s turbulence. You know, I am an atheist.”) along with his relativistic morality, especially his view on fidelity (actually encouraging infidelity as a way to learn more about sexuality).

One story focuses on Hayley (Alison Pill), an American tourist in Rome, who meets and falls in love with Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Her parents Jerry (Woody Allen, Manhattan Murder Mystery) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) fly to Rome to meet him and his parents. When there, Jerry, a retired music producer, realizes that Michelangelo’s father, a mortician, has the operatic voice of an angel. The catch is, he can only sing in a shower. And Jerry sets out to give him his moment in the spotlight.

Another story focuses on a middle-aged architect, John (Alec Baldwin), revisiting his old stomping grounds. When he comes across a current architectural student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network), they go back to Jack’s apartment where girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) informs them that her neurotic and sexually aggressive actress friend Monica (Ellen Page, Inception) is coming to stay. With the freedom and charm of magical realism, Allen makes John become Jack’s conscience. He is constantly popping up as Monica begins to seduce Jack. As she preys on Jack’s infatuation, John shows up whispering words of wisdom unseen by all but Jack.

The third tale features a pair of young Italian newlyweds who have travelled to Rome to meet relatives for a job. When Milly goes out to find a salon and subsequently gets lost, Antonio is visited by a hooker Anna (Penelope Cruz, Broken Embraces), who mistakes his room but has been paid to please the person in the room. Of course, his relatives mistake her for his new wife, and an extended comedy of mistaken identities ensues. Meanwhile, Milly stumbles around until she meets her favorite actor, who proceeds to try to bed her. All this in a single day, although the timeframe seems magically compressed.

The final story is about an ordinary man, a clerk Leopoldo (Roberti Benigni, Life is Beautiful), who overnight becomes a celebrity for no reason. Suddenly the paparazzi are waiting at his door to document every moment of his life. With this comes the “perks of celebrity”, women clamoring to sleep with him, even while his wife quietly accepts such behavior. And then as quickly, his celebrity status is gone.

Allen fills this film with stars, each bringing solid performances to their characters. But they are given less to work with due to the very nature of the movie. The four stories force them to have only a quarter of a film, thereby not giving enough time to really develop characters. Hence the audience is left not really caring too much for any one of them.

More than this, there is little connection between the stories except the location and the apparent idea of love in this romantic capital.

However, a theme does emerge that seems to tie these together: the transitoriness of fame, and the vapidness of infatuation or of casual sex.

Many of us see the celebrities of Hollywood or of sports teams and pine for such status. We may wish to be famous. But Leopoldo’s character gives a different picture of fame. The initial glamour and glitz disappear after a while. Allen even seems to point out that the sexual desirability can dissipate. Andy Warhol coined the phrase “15 minutes of fame” whereby everyone will be in the spotlight at some point. And Leopoldo seems to exemplify this. Indeed, he is said to be famous simply for being famous, which is illogically circular reasoning.

If Leopoldo demonstrates the classic transitoriness of “reality celebrity”, Jack gives us a picture of vapid infatuation. He comes under Monica’s spell, and is ready to break up with Sally. But Monica is a man-eater who can move on in a moment. Those infatuated fall victim to the seducer, to whom the sex is nothing more than pleasure in the moment. He is not so much in love with her as in lust with her. And lust is gone like the morning mist as the sun comes up.

Jerry’s story seems to focus on his desire to get back into the spotlight by putting the singing undertaker on stage. But his slant won’t last. Like Leopoldo, he is destined for a short-lived applause as showerheads and operas won’t form a lasting companionship.

Lastly, Antonio’s education by Anna at a garden party is a classic example of a one-night (or one-day) stand. Such casual sex will not enhance his relationship with Milly, even if it may refine his technique.

Rather than seeking out fame and status, the New Testament urges that “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior” (1 Tim. 2:2-3). Fame is rightly reserved for God (Jos. 9:9), whose status is as an eternal celebrity to be worshipped not lusted after.

Further, the Bible has much to say about sex, which after all is a precious gift of God to humanity for pleasure and procreation. But as the writer to the Hebrews says, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb. 13:4). Sex is designed for enjoyment by a man and wife joined in marriage. Outside of this union, sex, though pleasurable, can wreak havoc on relationships as well as psyches. As Solomon says of a neighbor’s wife (or by inference, a prostitute or any other woman): “Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes” (Prov. 6:25).

When we seek our 15 minutes of fame, or our moments of lust, leading to casual sex, we displace God, we demean ourselves, and we damage our relationships. In contrast to Allen’s message in this film, the Bible warns us to avoid this. Enjoy the film but ignore the message!

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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