Woody Allen Rome-ance falls flat

Woody Allen directs cast members of ‘To Rome With Love.’

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Writer-director Woody Allen co-stars in his newest ensemble “To Rome With Love.” Like last year’s hit “Midnight in Paris,” this romantic comedy is set in a city fabled for love. But this time, Allen presents four separate stories, linked only by the city in which they take place. The result is a pleasant little sampler-style comedy but something less cohesive or charming than the magical fantasy “Midnight in Paris.” In fact, while this romantic romp has its moments, anyone expecting another “Paris After Midnight” will likely be disappointed. 

In “To Rome with Love,” Allen plays Jerry, a newly retired American classical music producer noted for his cutting-edge (read: difficult) works that were “ahead of their time,” as his wife puts it. He and his psychiatrist wife Phyllis (Judy Davis) arrive in Rome to meet their daughter’s (Alison Pill) new Italian fiance (Flavio Parenti) and his family. Chafing at the thought of retirement, Jerry is seized with the idea of making his daughter’s future father-in-law, undertaker Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), into an opera star, after hearing him sing in the shower. 

In another American tourist tale, Alec Baldwin plays a famous architect who takes a stroll in to the neighborhood where he lived as a student, and encounters a student architect named Jack (Jesse Eisenberg). Jack is living with girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) but is distracted by her seductress friend Monica (Ellen Page) when she comes to visit. 

Two other vignettes feature Italian characters. In one, Roberto Benigni plays a boring middle-aged businessman who suddenly finds himself the object of paparazzi obsession. In the other, newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) arrive from their little village for a honeymoon in the city, and also to meet with Antonio’s uptight relatives, who are taking him into their big-city business. But the couple becomes separated almost immediately. Each embarks on his/her own misadventures, including the relatives mistaking Penelope Cruz, a sassy prostitute, for the new bride, and the real bride encountering an aging Italian movie star (Antonio Albanese).  

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The stories mostly lean towards farce, with a bit of the absurd and a good dose of sex comedy. Two of the stories are about pitfalls of young love, and two have older characters confronting the absurd. It is as if Allen had four stories in mind but not enough material to make any one of them into a whole film. 

As is typical with Allen’s films, the acting is superb. The strongest tale is the least farcical one, featuring Baldwin and Eisenberg as alter-egos in a clever little tale that evokes some of Allen’s earliest comedies. The two offer the best performances, in some very funny scenes with Baldwin delivering romantic advice to Eisenberg and biting commentary on pretentious, seductive Page. Eisenberg’s scenes with Gerwig and Page are a successful mix of romantically affecting and sublimely hilarious, with running commentary from Baldwin adding the perfect comic note. 

The story Allen appears in is the second strongest, a cautionary tale of folly and aging, with a little reflection on taking oneself too seriously. It features some great comic scenes, especially between Allen and the bitingly-funny Davis. Allen’s standard nebbish character is a turned a bit towards buffoon here, which works very well for his tale.

That tale, and the one in which Benigni is pursued by delusional paparazzi, give Allen a chance for social commentary, and particularly for taking a swat at those relentless celebrity hounds with whom he is doubtless too familiar. The fourth story, of the separated newlyweds, is the most classically farcical but the least appealing with a dose of cynicism about love.

“To Rome With Love” is more than a little reminiscent of Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite,” at least in form. The four stories are told concurrently, in episodes. However, nothing but location links the tales, although there is a narrator, a Roman traffic cop, to frame the action.

As one would expect, the photography is lush and loving but there is little specific to Rome in these light, little tales. The city mostly serves as a pleasant romantic backdrop, a role that could have been filled by any number of cities.