To Rome With Love

The city deserved better than this, one of Woody's weakest.

Woody Allen scored artistically and commercially on his European stops in London, Barcelona and Paris but gets a face full of linguine for his efforts on To Rome With Love. At its worst squirm- and grimace-inducing, this is an ultra-upscale touristy spin through the Eternal City as if arranged by the concierge at the Excelsior Hotel. Rehashing gags and motifs familiar from other Allen films, all of them better the first time around, the Sony Pictures Classics release might benefit initially from the goodwill generated by last year's Midnight in Paris, Allen's biggest hit ever, but word-of-mouth will nip expectations in the bud. Having opened in Italy on April 20 only in Italian-dubbed prints, the film had its English-language premiere June 14 at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

All things considered, it's a relief to learn that Allen's next production will be set in New York and San Francisco, as he would seem to have played out his string in Europe. Although the character he portrays here is a reluctantly retired opera director who discovers a brilliant tenor, Allen the writer-director has gone tone-deaf this time around, somehow not realizing that the nonstop prattling of the less-than-scintillating characters almost never rings true.

They are intercut, but the four story strands never interconnect -- one's expectations that a big, Felliniesque climactic gathering might be in the offing prove unfounded. But it's astounding that a writer as skilled as Allen doesn't even bother to respect the unity of time; one couple's story seems confined to a single day, while others appear to spin out across many weeks or longer.

The fact that Allen, acting in his first film since Scoop in 2006, plays an opera director is not entirely far-fetched in that Allen himself staged Puccini's one-act Gianni Schicchi at the Los Angeles Opera four years ago -- and quite well. However, his Jerry is the classic Allen kvetch, who arrives in Rome with his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis), to meet the prospective husband of daughter Hayley (Alison Pill) but can only complain about commies, unions and airplane turbulence.

Also visiting the city is architect John (Alec Baldwin), who encounters Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young man living in the same Trastevere neighborhood he did back in his 20s. Accompanying Jack back to his apartment, John meets Jack's appealing girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and hears of the imminent arrival of Sally's great friend Monica (Ellen Page), an L.A. actress immediately pegged by the older man as "a self-absorbed pseudo-intellectual."

A young lady who, within minutes of meeting someone for the first time, thinks nothing of telling in great detail about her one major lesbian relationship while insisting she likes men better, Monica is ill-advisedly thrown together by Sally with Jack, who quickly becomes smitten. Foolishly catering to Monica's every whim, Jack suddenly finds the older but wiser John hovering alongside him, but invisible to anyone else, acting as a sardonic mentor and ever-ready to comment upon Jack's amorous follies. Baldwin is well suited to this sardonic role but, unfortunately, Allen long ago wrote this routine a hundred times better when he used Humphrey Bogart as his own romantic mentor in Play It Again, Sam.

John's sage insights notwithstanding, Jack allows Monica to wrap him around her little finger in a storyline that at least has a bit more going for it than the others and, with elaboration, could have filled out a film of its own. Secondhand goods that it is, this playlet is still preferable to the others, which are all one-joke affairs.

Meanwhile, the awe-inspiring opera singer Jerry overhears in the shower just happens to be the father of his future son-in-law. After strenuous protests, mortician Giancarlo (real-life tenor Fabio Armiliato) finally agrees to a tryout, which flops. Why? Because he can sing beautifully only in the shower. Jerry's solution? Stage a Pagliacci in which the lead character is always taking a shower. This results in an elaborate production in which a nude Giancarlo, his midsection artfully covered by opaque glass, can sing all his songs while scrubbing away. However bad this sounds, it's funnier read than experienced.

Another strand focuses on a nondescript fellow (Roberto Benigni) who inexplicably finds himself hounded 24 hours per day by journalists, TV reporters and photographers who ask him in breathless tones about what he had for breakfast and all manner of other quotidian inanities. Eventually, when he finally asks why he's being besieged, someone points out, "You're famous for being famous." This is Allen's comment on the annoying side of being a celebrity, but it plays like a faint echo of Stardust Memories.

The most strained and just plain silly thread charts the implausible romantic distractions experienced by provincial newlyweds when they become separated for the longest day since the Normandy invasion. When sweet, innocent-seeming Milly (quite cute Alessandra Mastronardi) heads off from their hotel in search of a hair salon, her "middle-class mouse" husband, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi), is immediately assaulted by knockout hooker Anna (Penelope Cruz), who mistakes him for the customer to whom she's been well paid in advance to give the royal treatment.

When milquetoasty Antonio's fussy old relatives arrive, the kid idiotically passes the hottie in a red dress off as his wife, leading to all sorts of embarrassing moments, including when nearly every man at a fancy party turns out to be one of Anna's regular customers. Meanwhile, Milly can't find the hairdresser but does get sucked into the Roman movie world and the bed of a local film star. Unbelievable in every detail, the vignette seems to suggest that some hot sex with others will stoke the fires of a virginal couple, but it plays like bad bedroom farce.

For the most part, the characters are too stupid and blind to their own follies to accept even in this farcical context. The best the fine actors assembled can hope for is to avoid embarrassment, which only a few manage to do. Darius Khondji's cinematography bathes the already beautiful city in burnished, golden hues, but even the source music score, beginning with "Volare," is below the director's usual standards.

Release date: Friday, June 22 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Cast: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page
Director: Woody Allen Rated R, 112 minutes

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