“To Rome With Love,” Woody Allen’s 43rd outing as writer-director, plays like an antipasto of his latter-day career. Mixing a helping of neurotic romance, a side of fanciful absurdism, all drizzled in sparkling travelogue, the results don’t rank with his triumphs, but there are enough laughs and watchable performances to make it all go down easy.
It’s no “Midnight in Paris” or “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” but it’s leagues above “Scoop” and “Whatever Works.”
Structured like the comedic anthologies of the 1960s, or a Neil Simon movie with “Suite” in the title, “To Rome With Love” jumps back and forth between noninterconnected story lines.
Retired music producer Jerry (Allen) and his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis, underutilized), travel to the Eternal City to meet the fiance of their daughter (Alison Pill); Jerry discovers his prospective son-in-law’s father has an extraordinary voice for opera — but only under very specific circumstances.
Elsewhere, working man Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni, dialing it down for once) wakes up to discover that he has, for no apparent reason, become a huge celebrity.
Honeymooners Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) face temptation from, respectively, a prostitute (Penélope Cruz) and a movie star (Antonio Albanese).
In the most traditionally Allen-esque subplot, renowned architect John (Alec Baldwin) revisits his old digs and becomes enmeshed in the love life of student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), torn between his stable girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and her volatile actress pal Monica (Ellen Page).
The reveal of the central gag of the opera portion is too good to give away; suffice it to say that it, and the Benigni section, traffic in the kind of quasi-surrealism that Allen has employed throughout his career.
What makes “To Rome With Love” feel like little more than a pleasant diversion is the fact that none of these tales would have merited a movie on its own, and together they still don’t add up to much.
Allen gets in some good digs at celebrity culture with the Benigni story, but the ultimate message is little more than “Life sucks either way; at least if you’re famous you get sex and free stuff.” As for the Eisenberg triangle, it follows the love-trumps-logic formula that’s been a calling card of this auteur for decades.
Still, the director has assembled a top-notch cast (himself included) having a great time with the material, even if it occasionally feels like Page adopted that eerie faux-Woody stammer that made its way into actors like Kenneth Branagh, Will Ferrell and John Cusack during their collaborations with him.
Allen is one of those filmmakers, as the saying goes, whose second-rate stuff nonetheless outshines many other artists’ top material. And there are certainly worse ways to spend a summer day than getting a robust amount of laughs while sightseeing through one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Sneak in your own vino rosso.
To Rome With Love ***
Starring Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Running time 1 hour 52 minutes