What Is Summer in New York Without Woody Allen?

Can you imagine a summer in New York City without a new Woody Allen movie? Really, can you? At this point, some 40-odd years into his career, Allen remains the season’s most consistent (and, at times, the only) cineplex alternative to the requisite flurry of big booms and bigger budgets. Reliably hilarious, well-plotted and paced, and beautifully shot, Allen’s output—even now, in his fifth decade of making movies—is among cinema’s most effortlessly pleasurable. And after scoring his biggest box office hit ever last summer with Midnight in Paris, it’s hardly hyperbole to call Allen’s annual new releases the urbanite’s answer to new installments of a beloved superhero franchise.

That was my frame of mind when I walked into To Rome with Love, anyway. The promise of Allen’s signature nebbish wit spouted by favorite actors old (welcome back, Judy Davis!) and new (keep killing it, Ellen Page!) in the sun-dappled titular city felt like premium comfort food long before I entered the theatre. And yes, let’s make no mistake about it, To Rome with Love is light by any standard—its four independent narrative threads are all premised on gentle, gag-based absurdism, and its characters’ stakes are familiar ones of love versus lust, work versus play, fame versus family. But the sharp, open-hearted energy Allen and his actors emanate makes the experience feel like a warm afternoon block party—it’s the perfect date movie for anyone whose idea of romantic banter includes barbed asides about Miss Julie.

The New York press conference for the film, featuring Allen enveloped by members of Rome‘s winning troupe—Penelope Cruz, an ebullient Alec Baldwin, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, and fresh-faced Italian charmer Alessandra Mastronardi—further extended that feeling of a luxurious block party. Everyone in the room, superstars included, seemed happiest when just picking Allen’s mind. Everyone was quick to gush about the opportunity to work with him—Cruz, collaborating with him for the second time after her Oscar-winning turn in 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, confessed to still feeling the flush of a fangirl on occasion, saying, “I always try to look at him and forget all the admiration and beautiful moments I’ve experienced watching his work, because if I didn’t try to put that aside, and do what I have to do, I would be starstruck the whole time!” Page piped up to concur, noting that “I think I felt really similar to Penelope. When this opportunity arose, I felt very nervous, probably the most nervous and intimidated I’ve ever been to go and shoot a film: ‘Am I not going to be able to pull it off?’ But the experience with Woody was wonderful and liberating.”

Baldwin went even further in his praise, proclaiming that Allen was someone “responsible for more memorable moments, on every level—writing, producing, directing, and acting—than any other person who’s ever lived in film, really. I’ve always said that even Woody Allen’s less successful efforts are better than most other films you see, and then when you see the greatest films he’s made, they’re some of the greatest films ever made! So when he calls you and asks you to come and do this with him, if you’re available, you go.” (This comment was immediately followed by a deadpan “You’ve succeeded in embarrassing me” from Allen himself a few feet away.) Greta Gerwig, for her part, summed up the Woody Allen viewing experience as perfectly and succinctly as anyone could—“I wouldn’t live in New York if it wasn’t for his movies,” she said with a smile, and despite only living in the city at a time when Allen himself has relocated his films to various foreign locales, I couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

For his part, Allen exuded affability and grounded-ness throughout the press conference, far more so than I would’ve expected form the man whose onscreen doppelgangers, including Manhattan‘s Isaac and Annie Hall‘s Alvy Singer, are paragons of neurosis. Part of this, he admits, has to do with a simple awareness of the world around him: “I’m not an intellectual at all, but I find intellectuals amusing,” he noted when asked about his films’ name-dropping tendencies, and suddenly the bevy of literary character sketches in Midnight in Paris came into sharper focus for me. “When I write, I write about [intellectuals] in comic dilemmas and comic situations. If I was pressed as an intellectual, I’d be dead, but as a writer, making jokes about them, I can do that. For whatever reason I find that part of the social milieu amusing, and it seems to come out inadvertently in everything I do.”

Nonetheless, Allen’s superior knowledge of film and film history certainly helps in crafting pictures like To Rome with Love, which often feels like a miniature paean to the Italian master filmmakers of yore. Allen is quick to mention Fellini as a constant inspiration for his work, mentioning the latter’s early work The White Sheik as something of a companion piece to Mastronardi’s storyline in To Rome with Love, and further adding that, “I just love Italian cinema so much that that stuff creeps into your pores and you do it without even knowing—I don’t sit down and [draw influence from them] consciously, but when I sit back and look, I can see it clear as a bell.”

Baldwin, too, cited the classics of Italian cinema as a source of inspiration for his acting in this film and beyond. “I think Italy has more of a sense of humor than a lot of other places I’ve been,” he explained. “It’s very loose, relaxing place; it’s just not very self-conscious. And when you look at Italian films, there is a kind of an openness; there’s not a lot of pretense. When you look at [Marcello] Mastroianni and even [Roberto] Benigni [who appears in To Rome with Love] and so forth, they’re very open to the camera and very available, there’s not a lot of hide-and-go-seek. You can see right into them, and I try to keep that in mind.”

One of the central thematic tropes of To Rome with Love is fame—its ups, its downs, and first and foremost its total arbitrarity—which meant it was a natural topic for discussion among the group, as well. When one brave reporter asked Allen to cite some of the stupidest questions he had ever been asked by members of the press, he followed up his initial quip (“I don’t think we have enough time…”) with a comment on the public’s general insatiability for big stars, big stories, and big name-dropping: “When I walk through those red carpet things, the amount of times that I get asked, ‘Is Scarlett Johansson your new muse? Is Penelope Cruz your new muse?’ If I make one picture with somebody, they assume that I have a muse, and that I want a muse, and that person wants to be my muse! So that’s one of the boundless questions I’ve been asked that are really, really stupid.” The room chuckled as one, but no doubt one or two of the reporters mentally crossed a similar question off their list.

Of course, it’s this candid and jovial approach to dealing with the moviemaking machine that keeps Allen willing and able to make a new film just about every year, even as he nears his 80th birthday. Fame might be an exhausting game to play, but if it helps to get films like To Rome with Love produced and packing theatres worldwide, we should all be thankful Allen continues to put up with it. And as indicated by the energy this living legend exudes—on the page, alongside his actors on the screen, and even on the press circuit—To Rome with Love is anything but a swansong for Allen. He and his retinue of talented actors and producers clearly remain committed to providing moviegoers with witty, humane, and effortlessly entertaining alternatives to traditional summer blockbuster fare.

His next production might end up on any corner of the globe—Allen himself expressed a willingness to write for any locale, which led to more than a few daydreams on my part (Woody Goes Bollywood? Allen Down Under?)—but I’m thankful I can count on spending at least one afternoon every New York summer going on a new adventure somewhere with him.