Woody's Italian Renaissance

With the success of "Midnight in Paris" and the hoopla surrounding "To Rome With Love," a new Allen movie suddenly is once again a big event.

Woody Allen has been – at least by his usual press-shy standards – on a media blitz in recent days, unexpectedly dropping names like Lindsay Lohan and Tonya Harding as he promotes his new film, “To Rome With Love.”

Allen is famously a sufferer of the inability to experience pleasure – a phenomena known as “anhedonia” (which, incidentally, was the original title of perhaps his greatest triumph, "Annie Hall," released just over 35 years ago). But he can be forgiven for seeming to nearly enjoy himself lately, even cracking jokes about the pitfalls of fame.

“It’s not so terrible,” he told reporters recently. “The bad stuff is greatly outweighed by the dinner reservations.”

Allen, riding as high as he’s capable of since last year's surprise success of "Midnight in Paris," is in the midst of a renaissance. With his Rome-set comedy set for release Friday, we’re at the welcome point where a new Woody Allen movie is suddenly once again a big event.

In decades past, Allen turned out landmark films like “Annie Hall,” and “Manhattan” with gaps of a year or less, leading to constant anticipation of his next flick and long movie house lines – at least in New York and parts of Europe. “Midnight,” a clever – and, far more importantly, very funny – comedy expanded Allen’s audience, pulling in more than $150 million worldwide, which, while hardly big money for Harry from Hogwarts, proved a personal record-setter for Woody from Brooklyn.

The film reawakened in longtime fans a dormant excitement about Allen, whose prodigious output has yielded more disappointments than gems in recent years. Sure, 2008’s Spain-set "Vicky Cristina Barcelona” offered a sexy meditation on Allen’s recurring theme of the fickleness of love. But in "Midnight," the filmmaker triumphed by being unafraid to show heart, wearing it on the sleeve of his Oxford shirt. He let whimsy guide him, and produced a likable, comically conflicted character in Owen Wilson's dreamer Gil, an Allen surrogate who lost – and found – himself in the Jazz Age.

In “Rome,” we'll get to see Allen on screen for the first time since the 2006 clunker "Scoop." His cast includes some Woody favorites – Judy Davis, Penelope Cruz – and some new players, including Jesse Eisenberg and Roberto Benigni, who portrays an ordinary man suddenly beset by paparazzi for no apparent reason.

The last time an Allen movie generated this much pre-release hoopla dates to "Husbands and Wives" in 1992, the year he learned a hard, self-inflicted lesson about price of fame. The intense interest in the film stemmed from his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, the daughter of his then-girlfriend Mia Farrow – a scandal that exploded onto the front pages 20 years ago this summer. “The heart wants what the heart wants,” he infamously told the press at the time.

He eventually married Previn, now 41 to his 76. But the controversy still trails him. The suddenly hot-again Allen got some presumably unwanted publicity Sunday when his estranged son, Ronan Farrow, tweeted, "Happy father's day -- or as they call it in my family, happy brother-in-law's day."
Though generated from hurt and sadness, it's a funny line – one that could have come from Allen, who once quipped, with somewhat less edge, “I don't think my parents liked me. They put a live teddy bear in my crib.”

Allen has long cautioned against seeing his jokes and films as reflections of his own life. But it’s hard not to in movies like “Husbands and Wives” and 1983’s “Zelig,” in which his human chameleon character becomes famous, only to be loved, hated and loved again. But unlike Leonard Zelig, Woody Allen never changed for anyone. 

He’s already working in his next movie, starring, among others, Louis C.K. – which sounds like another big event in the making. In the meantime, check out a preview of “To Rome With Love”:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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