Woody Allen's world tour continues in his new comedy To Rome With Love, which tells four intermingling stories, all set in the title city. Although they're told concurrently, rather than one at a time, it is a film reminiscent of omnibus movies like Twilight Zone and Four Rooms--not in terms of subject matter, but of quality. In those films (and many other collaborative efforts), it seems almost inevitable that two of the directors will nail it and two will miss wildly, resulting in two great stories and two poor ones. That's what happens here--but they're all from the same director. Over the past decade or so, Allen has made several very good films, and some that were placeholders, marking time on his prolific once-a-year schedule until the next great one. Oddly, in To Rome, both Allens show up.
Unsurprisingly, the stronger sections both traffic in the kind of playfully surrealistic flavor that made Midnight in Paris such a treat last year. In one, Alec Baldwin plays John, a wildly successful architect on vacation in Rome, where he spent some time as a youth. While wandering his old haunts, he is recognized by Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young architect who lives in the neighborhood; Jack takes his new friend home to meet his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig), who tells him that her friend Monica (Ellen Page) is coming for a visit, though she seems concerned because men always fall for sexy Monica. John recognizes the situation, and warns of the danger ahead, and then Allen does something sly and quite clever: he turns John into a wry omniscient commentator, shaking his head and deconstructing the conversations, and we realize that this isn't coincidence at all. John is revisiting his past, watching his younger self (John/Jack) with full knowledge of the mistakes he's making, but unable to prevent them. "I'll allow you your moment," John tells Jack, "but remember, I know how it turns out." The casting in this segment is slightly off--Page and Gerwig appear to have been cast in the wrong roles, and the latter is a bit hard to buy as a relationship-wrecking femme fatale--but Baldwin and Eisenberg are terrific, and the younger actor's cutaways during Monica's sapphic sex story are nearly as funny as Baldwin's dismissal of it.
The film's other highlight, much to this viewer's surprise, is the segment starring Roberto Benigni as a random Italian named Leopoldo who is plucked, seemingly at random, from utter obscurity to be a media sensation. Paparazzi follow him everywhere; reporters hang on his every word. At first, he's confused ("I'm Leonardo Pisanello, the schmuck!" he tells his bride. "You're the schmuck's wife!"), but he learns very quickly to value the attention from passerby and dates with supermodels. The actor's boyish takes and sheer joy at his accidental luck are a blast to watch; the picture serves as a fine reminder of what a gifted physical comic Benigni was before he got weighed down in schmaltz. And there's a bit of commentary from the filmmaker as well, who first seems to be revisiting the territory he mined (not altogether successfully) in Celebrity, but reveals his true intentions when Leonardo's new chauffeur tells him, "You're famous for being famous," and he replies, "I don't deserve to be!"
The picture's other two segments a more traditionally comic and broad--and less successful. Allen himself stars is one of them, making his first onscreen appearance in six years, and his initial reveal gets a good, hearty giggle; it's good to have him back (and the same goes for Judy Davis, playing his wife). They play the parents of Hayley (the delightful Allison Pill), who has fallen in love in Italy and is planning to marry her new beau. Allen's Jerry, a retired opera producer and director, overhears her new father-in-law in the shower and is overwhelmed by the man' vocal gifts, but discovers after a disastrous audition that the man can only perform in the shower. The lovingly absurd conclusion this leads to is at first amusing, until we realize that Allen hasn't figured out how to push the joke past its most obvious, presentational level; he just keeps telling it, over and over again, and the weak conclusion (along with a few less-than-stellar one-liners along the way) sink the section.
The final sequence is mostly a piffle, the story of a pair of provincial Italian newlyweds visiting Rome who get separated and wind us having their own adventures--she with a famous Italian actor, he with a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) who has been sent to him by mistake. Cruz is lovely, but the jokes here would have been stale in one of Woody's '70s efforts; there is even, no kidding, a scene where the young husband spies on his wife in a restaurant, leaning back in his chair again and again until, yep, you guessed it.
To Rome, With Love is an informative experiment for the filmmaker at this point in his career, as it confirms that he must keep moving forward: the half that works explores more experimental storytelling ideas, while the half that doesn't buries him in tired material and overworked subject matter. Even the sections that miss have some good lines and charming performances in them, of course; his lesser efforts always had recommendable elements, if one chose to dig them out. That digging has seldom been as clean and easy as it is here.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.