Over the last eight years, Woody Allen has taken a touristy approach to the European settings of most of his films, but it has not been as all-consuming as often alleged: “Match Point” and “Cassandra’s Dream” offered flickers of working-class London. “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” was a bourgeois fable that mostly avoided London hot spots, so, too, the Hitchcockian comedy thriller “Scoop.” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”’s Gaudi-land was integral to its story, and the literary-bohemian space-time continuum – Hemingway’s Moveable Feast actualized – served “Midnight in Paris” admirably.
Fetching up in the Eternal City for his new movie, however, Allen has gone for the full Saltimbocca alla Romana. It’s instructive that he twice had to trade down when naming it, the witty “The Bop Decameron” and “Nero Fiddled” being jettisoned in favor of the bland “To Rome With Love.” True, the title’s Baedeker ambience suits a film that dutifully checks off the Trevi Fountain, the Sistine Chapel, and the Spanish Steps, but there’s a genuine sense of wonder about the Rome Allen presents through the eyes of American visitors and Italian out-of-towners.
Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s sole bold camera move is a 360 pan past opulent Roman houses that evokes the confusion of a naive provincial bride (Alessandra Mastronardi) lost on her first trip to the city. A young American architect (Jesse Eisenberg) marvels at the durability of Rome’s ancient monuments as he gazes at the Coliseum from a rooftop. It’s hard not to share his enthusiasm, and Allen forces our hand by having Khondji bathe the city in a golden luster, as Javier Aguirresarobe did Barcelona in “Vicky Cristina.”
Vaguely reminiscent of such Italian anthology films of the early sixties as “Boccaccio ’70” and “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” “To Rome With Love” comprises four discrete, interwoven strands. The only one that wouldn’t have worked equally well in another city concerns a humble Roman office clerk, Leopoldi (a quiescent Roberto Benigni), with a wife and two kids, who is suddenly plagued by the world’s most aggressive paparazzi, lionized by entertainment television, and lusted after by beautiful women. His mystification is akin to that of the out-of-focus Robin Williams in “Deconstructing Harry.”
What Leopoldi eats for breakfast, how he shaves, and his taste in underwear become subjects of fascination. While it’s understandable why Allen would want to have a go at the media’s invasiveness, inanity, and fickleness, the explanation that Leopoldi is “famous for being famous” is long past its sell-by date. That he craves celebrity after it deserts him is more worthy of exploration, but the movie only glances at its addictiveness.
Another Roman family collides with an American family in the story starring Allen as kvetching retired opera director, Jerry, who flies into Rome with his therapist wife (Judy Davis) – mortality-challenged, he stresses about the turbulence, a joke recycled from “Vicky Cristina” – to meet the new fiancé of their tourist daughter. There’s an amusing clash between anti-union Jerry and his socialist future son in law, but what drives this anecdote is Jerry’s realization that the boy’s father, Giancarlo (real-life tenor Fabio Amiliato), a mortician he shrinks from when introduced, has a great voice. That he can only sing with confidence in the shower sets up how “I Pagliacci” will be staged at the end of the movie after Jerry, becoming Giancarlo’s manager to stave off his own obsolescence, bullies him to perform. It’s a pleasing sight gag that scarcely merits the huff and puff that sets it up.
The bride, Milly, arrives in Rome with her husband, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi), a worrywort who needs to make a good impression with the well-connected relatives who want to make a businessman of him. When they find him with a prostitute (Penélope Cruz, channeling Sophia Loren) who has stumbled into his hotel room, he passes her as off as his wife, and her breezy vulgarity naturally undercuts his prospects. Simultaneously, Milly falls into the clutches of an aging male movie star who quickly attempts her seduction. Allen astutely recognizes that the free-spirited Milly is less worried about straying than the repressed Antonio, but what could have been an anarchic fable ends up cozily.
The most successful strand comes from Allen’s book of jinxed sexual triangles. Jack (Eisenberg), who lives with fellow expat Sally (Greta Gerwig), befriends a semi-famous architect, John (Alec Baldwin), who’s visiting his old Roman neighborhood after thirty years absence. Like the Bogart of “Play It Again, Sam,” John sticks around as Jack’s conscience as he embarks on an affair with Sally’s best friend Monica (Ellen Page) – a promiscuous actress reminiscent of Diane Keaton’s pseudo-intellectual neurotic in “Manhattan.”
Since John is armed with the knowledge that Jack’s relationship with Monica can’t prosper, it’s not inconceivable that the world-weary John is looking back on his own youthful folly. The stakes would have been much higher had Allen made Sally three-dimensional as he did Mariel Hemingway’s Tracy in “Manhattan,” but Gerwig’s part is woefully underwritten.
“To Rome With Love” is an amiable midsummer entertainment with spasms of insight. The stories are linked by the anxiety and pliability of the men and their vulnerability to the voracious women Allen contrasts with “nice” Sally and Leopoli and Giancarlo’s dowdy Madonna-ish wives. The babes and movie star who vamp Leopoldi are no more real than Cruz’s Fellini strumpet, who succeeds “Mighty Aphrodite”’s Mira Sorvino and “Deconstructing Harry”’s Hazelle Goodman as the latest of Allen’s fantastical call girls. As a cartoon of male desires – and he doesn’t pretend she’s anything else – Cruz is funny, but it’s Page who steals the film with her portrayal of the kind of disingenuous, beautiful flake who gives weak-willed men nightmares for the rest of their lives. The girls may be questionable constructs. But the guys? They’re wimps.