To Rome with Love (2012)
102 min., rated R.
You've got to hand it to Woody Allen: the 76-year-old writer-director makes a movie every year. Becoming a bit of a travel guide since his first foray out of his beloved New York in 2005's London-set "Match Point," Allen has had some misfires along the way of his European travels (2007's ineffective "Cassandra's Dream" and 2010's shrug-worthy "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"). His 42nd endeavor, "To Rome with Love," might pale in comparison to his return to form (2011's magical "Midnight in Paris") and many of his "early, funny ones," but "trifling Woody Allen" is better than no Woody Allen at all. A love note to the lovely Italian city, "To Rome with Love" intercuts four non-interconnecting vignettes, all unfolding over different timelines (one over a long afternoon, the others over several weeks or months) and bookended by a silly, see-all Roman traffic cop. What Allen is trying to say isn't anything new (fame and accomplishment have their pros and cons), especially from the Woodman, and there may be little meaning and not much wisdom beneath the surface, but it's a pleasantly buoyant, frivolous diversion for this particular year.
Allen casts himself, for the first time since 2006's "Scoop," as a neurotic music-producer retiree named Jerry who, with his psychiatrist wife Phyllis (Judy Davis), flies to Rome to see their newly engaged daughter, Hayley (Alison Phill), and meet their prospective son-in-law, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), and his family. The father, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), runs a mortuary but has a naturally fantastic tenor voice, which Jerry becomes enamored with. Unfortunately, the mortician's voice is only music to the ears in the shower. This story pops mainly from Allen, his kvetching to and bickering with sharp-tongued Davis, and the visual joke of Giancarlo's belting out opera on a stage in a shower stall is funny…until it plays itself out. In the next yarn, buttoned-up milquetoast Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and his cute naif of a wife Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) arrive to Rome. While Antonio gears up to introduce his aunts and uncles to his new wife and hopefully land a new job, Milly gets lost in the city, which initially turns hopeless until she meets a seemingly charming movie star. Meanwhile, a voluptuous call girl named Anna (Penélope Cruz) gets the wrong hotel room, trying to seduce Antonio. But when his relatives barge in, she has to pretend to be Milly. A contrived screwball farce of mistaken identity and infidelity, this one has its moments, mostly thanks to Cruz, but runs out of steam from the mousy lead characters reacting with very little intelligence or good judgment. Where all this ends up is especially misguided.
The remaining stories travel on absurdist flights of fancy and "magical realism." Roberto Benigni plays Leopoldo, a very ordinary family man who inexplicably becomes a tabloid celebrity, purely based on his mundane ordinariness that paparazzi and newscasters find positively interesting (i.e. what he eats for breakfast). That's it, that's the joke, but it is a clever one, taking digs at momentary celebrity that doesn't seem earned. The red-carpet movie premiere with Leopoldo and his wife, whose "junky print dress" and run in her stocking get trashed by the fashion police, is a comedic highlight. Lastly, roaming the Roman streets for his old stomping grounds, an architect named John (Alec Baldwin) runs into a younger "him" in the form of a studying-to-be-an-architect American named Jack (Jesse Eisenberg). As John follows him around like an unseen commentator with sage advice, Jack makes the mistake of "walking into the propeller," or falling for high-maintenance struggling actress Monica (Ellen Page), the best friend of his studious, devoted girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) that's visiting Rome and staying with them. Though his presence makes for a jarring device at first, Baldwin gets blessed with the funniest lines. Eisenberg (a perfect stammerer to play a surrogate Woody Allen) and Page never cook up much chemistry, and a criminally wasted Gerwig is betrayed with having nothing of interest to do.
"To Rome with Love" not only assembles a terrific cast that's fun to watch, but sprinkles in enough laughs to be more delightful than not. Oftentimes, it feels as if Allen's cast is doing all the work, while Allen the writer wrote up their characters on cocktail napkins. But on the whole, there are more pleasures here than Garry Marshall could only wish were found in his shallow one-two punch of every-celebrity-but-Mister-Kitchen-Sink pastiches, "Valentine's Day" and "New Year's Eve." The sun-kissed Eternal City is radiantly lensed by Darius Khondji (Allen's go-to cinematographer since "Anything Else"), the classic Italian tune "Volare" charmingly opens and closes the film, however, the repetitive music score grates. The good thing about Woody Allen is that since he fulfills a yearly quota for making movies, if one gets shot down, he already has another one in the drawer. So one can either take the mildly amusing lark of "To Rome with Love," or wait for Allen's next vacation in 2013.
Grade: B -