Leopoldo Pisanello, the central character in one of the four intercut stories in Woody Allen’s latest Europalogue, is described by the narrator as being dependable, agreeable, and predictable. The same can be said for the film itself, which presents a bounty of oft-recycled delights from Allen’s neurotic confectionary. But To Rome with Love is nearly done in by an overcrowded (and somewhat miscast) ensemble, as the filmmaker sacrifices depth in favor of a plurality of vignettes.
Our first glimpses into the lives of Rome’s peripatetic inhabitants and visitors come from the omniscient perch of the narrating traffic conductor in the epicenter of the densely packed Eternal City. Acting in his own film for the first time since Scoop, a slightly droopy Allen plays Jerry, a reluctantly retired opera director whose daughter’s engagement to an Italian man brings him and his wife, Phyllis (the always sharp-tongued Judy Davis), to Rome to meet the in-laws. The father of the groom, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), is a mortician who happens to possess a phenomenal operatic singing voice—but only in the shower. You can guess what Jerry’s epiphanic solution is (the gag is well staged, but drags on a little too long).
Allen and Davis have a predictable but charming dynamic as death-fearing husband and psychoanalyzing wife, but the rest of the characters in this narrative thread are beyond flat, their dialogue painfully rehearsed. Also visiting the city are a pair of provincial Italian newlyweds, Milly and Antonio; Penelope Cruz, in scanty red dress, plays a thinly written role as a high-class call girl who mistakes Antonio for a pre-paid customer.
Alec Baldwin is a highlight of the ensemble (and the film) as John, a successful American architect who revisits the neighborhood where he lived briefly as a student. John ends up chatting with Jack (Jessie Eisenberg), an aspiring architect and twenty-something version of himself, and slips into the role of unsolicited mentor when Jack’s girlfriend announces a visit by her friend and man-magnet, Monica (Ellen Page). John sporadically pops up by the younger man’s side to warn him against the manipulative phoniness of Monica’s embellished erotic stories and pseudo-intellectual catch phrases.
Baldwin infuses the metaphysical conception of Play It Again Sam’s Humphrey Bogart with the well-meaning, sardonic essence of 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy to great avail, but there is far more chemistry between him and Eisenberg than there is between the two alleged young lovers, who seem like not-quite-grown-ups playing neurotic dress up. Eisenberg is believable as a bundle of hang-ups but not as an erotic adventurer, and though Page has some great moments in close-up that are startlingly reminiscent of Jessica Harper in Stardust Memories, she ultimately doesn’t quite cut it as irresistible temptress.
When the film seamlessly blends the real with the absurd, Allen is at his best, and so Leopoldo’s arbitrary rise to fame from his humdrum existence as a clerk is the most enjoyable story in the batch. The concept is as inventive as Allen’s most memorable short comic fiction and is well suited to the era of reality TV. Hounded by paparazzi that question him about his boxer shorts, and invited on to talk shows to discuss his breakfast preferences, Leopoldo (played by Roberto Benigni) is granted a taste of the farce of fame. Benigni, clad in a slightly oversized suit with Chaplin-like gesticulations, is tailor-made to play the genuinely incredulous clown.
Free from the chronological commitments of a single narrative, Allen drops in (and out) on his characters with a cinematic ease that is as buoyant as the score, which partakes of Italy’s operatic classics and cheesiest Eurovision pop in equal measure. The setting, though not quite as breathtaking as those in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, doesn’t disappoint, with shots of Rome’s major piazzas, bougie hotel suites, cocktail parties overlooking the Spanish Steps, narrow streets laden with overgrown ivy, and strategically placed red cars.
Sharing its opening weekend with an Annie Hall revival at Film Forum puts the movie into perhaps unfairly harsh perspective. While To Rome with Love has its moments, the pleasures it affords are as fleeting as a Roman holiday.