Continuing the tone set by last year's Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen's new film is relaxed, easy-to-digest, light entertainment—middle-brow fluff done right, in other words. Like a Bertrand Blier movie without the ambition or the mean smarts, it trades in narrative left turns, tricky structures, sustained Surrealist gags, caricature characters, and theatrical devices that have been transposed to filmmaking; it doesn't add up to much—some good laughs, a handful of basic observations about human behavior, and the same moral about being content with your place in the world that Allen's been preaching for the last 40 years—but there's no sense faulting a movie for slightness when it's slight by design.
To Rome with Love consists of four intercut stories. They aren't connected in any way except the setting, and though the film starts in the morning and ends in the evening, they don't share a timeframe. In ascending order of narrative complexity, they are:
- A story about a joe-schmoe office clerk (Roberto Benigni) who inexplicably becomes famous, followed everywhere by paparazzi and TV reporters who want to know what he had for breakfast, how he shaves, and whether he thinks it'll rain. This is facile, easy-target stuff—the cult of celebrity—though Allen has the good sense not to overplay his hand; this is more sketch than satire, sustained by Benigni's everyman mugging. This story seems to take place over the course of a few weeks.
- The sort of featherweight sex comedy that wouldn't be out of place in one of countless French and Italian omnibus films produced in the early to mid 1960s. A lower-middle-class couple (Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi) from a small town come to Rome so that the husband can meet with some distant relatives who might help him land a corporate job. On her way to find a hair salon, Mastronardi becomes lost and wanders on to a movie set, where a famous actor seduces her. In the meantime, the relatives show up at the couple's hotel and find the husband in a compromising position with a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) who has come to the wrong room; since the relatives have never met his wife, Tiberi talks the prostitute into pretending to be her. This story takes place over the course of an afternoon.
- A culture-clash comedy in the Neil Simon mode (though not as bad as that sounds) that abruptly shifts direction partway in. Allen and Judy Davis play the parents of a young woman who is engaged to an Italian activist lawyer. Many jokes are made about Europe (including two different—and contradictory—asides about the Euro in a single gag), Italy, Communism, and the Italian family's mortuary business before Allen's character, a retired record company executive, discovers that his son-in-law's father (operatic tenor Fabio Armiliato) has a gorgeous singing voice. Hoping to realize his dream of becoming a renowned avant-garde opera director, Allen latches on to Armiliato's talent—only to discover that the man is only capable of singing when taking a shower. This story appears to take place over the course of several months.
- The most structurally sophisticated and best of the stories, and the only one that could probably sustain a feature (albeit a short one) on its own. Alec Baldwin plays a successful architect who is visiting Rome with his wife. While she takes in the sights, he decides to visit a neighborhood where he lived thirty years earlier. There he runs into a college student (Jesse Eisenberg, dressed in the standard uniform of the Woody Allen stand-in: tucked-in shirt, baggy pants with large pockets and a clunky belt) who recognizes him and offers to help Baldwin find his old apartment, which happens to be on the street where the student currently lives with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig). The student invites Baldwin up for coffee, and soon it becomes clear that he is the younger Baldwin—or at least a modern-dress version of the younger Baldwin. The story never clarifies whether it's portraying the past, or the present from the perspective of the future. It's pure stage writing: Baldwin's presence is only occasionally acknowledged, and Eisenberg's doubts are combined with Baldwin's memories into a sort of "internal dialogue" that plays out as a series of conversations largely unheard and unnoticed by the other characters.
Every story ends more or less the same way: having had a brief chance at success, the central self-pitying failure (Benigni, Tiberi, Allen, Baldwin / Eisenberg) learns to be happy with the imperfect life they've lead (note: this is how 90% of all Woody Allen films end). The view of Rome is tourist-brochure material, the music cues are head-slappingly obvious ("Volare" and Verdi!), there's little sense of what working life is like (though three of the stories revolve around lower-middle-class Italians), and all of the men wear their shirts tucked-in—in short, the film is set squarely in Allen's comfort zone.
And yet the funny thing about Allen—a filmmaker of notoriously limited tastes and themes—is that whenever he sets out to make something "profound" or "serious"—as he did throughout the middle portion of his career—it tends to reveal all of his weaknesses, whereas the films made for no clear purpose except to entertain an audience—like his earliest and also his most recent features, including this one—usually play to all of his strengths.
He may not be much of a visual thinker, but he knows a good cinematographer when he sees one (Darius Khondji, in this case) and how medium-shots and close-ups can work with the rhythm of the dialogue. He may be not have much insight or depth as a dramatist, but he remains one of the finest set-up-and-punchline writers in American comedy. He may not be the sort of director who pushes actors to do anything they haven't done before, but he almost never miscasts; his grasp of his three favorite subjects—film, literature, and music—often comes off as thin, but he possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary actors' ranges and screen personas. Made with no pretension and with small aspirations, To Rome with Love may be small potatoes stuff, but it showcases Allen doing what he does better than pretty much any American director: writing light, diverting comedy and directing actors to hit every comic beat just right.