Alessandro Tiberi, Roberto Della Casa, Penelope Cruz
NEW YORK – Woody Allen’s "To Rome with Love" is not the cinematic gem his last film "Midnight in Paris" was, but it is a pleasant, leisurely entertainment, a nice way to spend a couple of waning summer hours. It sports a fine cast, an impressive mix of American and Italian actors, including the 76-year-old actor-writer-director Allen himself in his first film appearance since his funny turn as a stage magician in "Scoop" back in 2005.
What helps "To Rome with Love" immensely is its having the gorgeous city of Rome as its centerpiece, gloriously and glowingly shot by cinematographer Darius Khonoji. Rome is as much a character in the film as any Mr. Allen has created. Of course, that is entirely appropriate because "To Rome with Love" was produced and financed by Roman film distributers that had only one requisite for Mr. Allen: that the film be entirely shot in Rome.
As he did in "Scoop," Mr. Allen again conjures up magic in "To Rome with Love," this time with four separate vignettes that crisscross but never intertwine and that play like a series of postcards from friends spending a summer in Rome.
All the topics are familiar Allen obsessions: romantic problems, nostalgia, happenstance and fame. They play like a quartet of short stories lifted from Boccaccio’s The Decameron channeled through Mr. Allen’s thoroughly American sensibility.
The first one is about a young American woman, Hayley (Alison Pill, who was so good as Zelda Fitzgerald in "Midnight in Paris"), who, while looking for the Trevi Fountain, meets a handsome Italian lawyer, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) and falls in love with him. Soon, her very American parents Jerry (Mr. Allen), a retired avant-garde opera director, and his wife Phyllis (the Australian actress Judy Davis, who was stellar in Mr. Allen’s "Husbands and Wives") are heading to Rome to meet their prospective liberal son-in-law and his mother and mortician father Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato).
He may be in Rome, but soon Mr. Allen falls back into his old comedic antics, spinning one liners in all directions. They may be slightly retro. (When did you last hear a joke about the id or ego? Probably 40 years ago in another Woody Allen film). Yet, you will still get a laugh, or at least a chuckle, from Mr. Allen’s well-worn wisecracks.
As Jerry’s wife, Ms. Davis is the perfect foil for Mr. Allen, loving but cool, and delivering her lines with wry dryness. When there’s mention of Jerry’s disastrous staging of a production of "Rigoletto" – all the actors were costumed as white mice – she brushes it off with a simple declarative: "Jerry was always ahead of his time."
Jerry shows that he is no shutdown retiree but still enterprising. When he accidently hears Michelangelo’s father Giancarlo, played and sung by Mr. Armiliato, an internationally renowned operatic tenor, singing magnificent Puccini arias in the shower, suddenly the impresario Jerry bounces back into business full throttle.
Not all of the tales work out so well and some just go on too long, but there is a consistent amusing quality to the film. So, if the narrative bogs down, it will usually rally back a few minutes later. And, of course, there is always Rome and its landmarks to savor. In one sequence about the romantic difficulties of a young married couple from Pordenone in Northeastern Italy, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi), on their first trip to Rome, Mr. Allen tries his hand at farce, which unfortunately quickly turned into the preposterous and soon wore out my patience. This does have a Sophia Loren-like performance by Penelope Cruz, potraying Anna, probably the only lady of the evening in all of filmdom who brings dignity and humanity to such a role.
Another segment features the brilliant Roberto Benigni (Oscar winner for "Life Is Beautiful" in 1997) as a clerk who wakes up one morning and finds himself famous. It is really a one-note joke, but Mr. Benigni is a classic clown and turns what is essentially a nothing role into a magnificent star turn. It also gives Mr. Allen a chance to give a nod to the Roman paparazzi, which Fellini first introduced in "La Dolce Vita" so many years ago, 1960, and was also featured later in his own movie on stardom, "Celebrity."
Perhaps the most touching and best-written story in the film is the chance encounter between young architecture student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and older architect John (Alec Baldwin), who also studied in Rome and lived in the same Trastevere neighborhood as Jack does. Jack takes John back to what John thinks is his old apartment and introduces him to his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig), who announces that her best friend Monica (Ellen Page), a wacky out-of-work actress, is coming from California for a visit. At this point, Mr. Allen’s film takes on a surreal quality and John becomes a ghost-like persona, guiding Jack though not only Monica’s turbulent visit, but also his life in general. The surreal aspect of the piece makes one wonder if the whole story is not all John’s dream. Whatever it is, it is charming and well-acted and, like all the stories in "To Rome with Love," in the end all the characters emerge a little changed and a little more knowledgeable after their Roman respite.
Mild warning: There are two instances of strong language and a couple of mild sexual situations. Both are superfluous and should not spoil this light Woody Allen comedy.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.