Woody Allen's latest picture, To Rome With Love, is a pleasant summer comedy. It's in may ways a trifle, but it's also sweetly intellectual and, at its core, a movie about romance and dreams.
The writer/director structures the movie as a quartet of stories. They run concurrently, jumping back and forth from one narrative to the other, playing willy-nilly with time and foregoing any usual facsimile of reality. One of the stories takes place over an afternoon; others take place over a manner of days. Yet, Allen presents them all as if they were simultaneous. This is the magic of movies. We need not be bound by time or reason.
Of To Rome With Love's four tales, there isn't a clunker in the bunch. All are genial, smartly written, and expertly acted. In one of the more complicated tales, Alec Baldwin plays an older architect who studied in the city when he was younger. Revisiting the street he lived on in his college days, he runs into a budding builder who has come to Italy with his girlfriend. The new generation architect is played by Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), and his girlfriend is the always-fetching Greta Gerwig (Lola Versus). Their quiet lives are complicated by the arrival of her best friend, a flighty actress whom men find irresistible (the irresistible Ellen Page, Whip It). As Eisenberg is inevitably drawn to her, the presence of Alec Baldwin hangs around and comments on what's happening, acting as the twentysomething's own Jiminy Cricket.
Another story also features an American transplant falling in love in the city. Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is a summer traveler who begins dating a handsome Italian lawyer (Flavio Parenti, I Am Love), and when they become engaged, her parents (Judy Davis and Woody Allen himself) fly over to meet the prospective in-laws. When the girl's father discovers the boy's father is a natural born opera singer, he tries to make arrangements to put him on the stage. Comedic complications ensue.
The final two stories involve true Italians. In one, a newlywed couple comes from the country to the city in search of new opportunities, only to be immediately separated. A case of mistaken identity causes him (Alessandro Tiberi) to become engaged in a social situation where his family and prospective employers think that a voluptuous prostitute (Penelope Cruz, making the profane seem absolutely sacred) is his young bride. As for the real young bride (Alessandra Mastronardi), she suffers her own temptation when she meets one of her favorite Italian film stars (Antoni Albanese). Finally, Life is Beautiful star Roberto Benigni plays an average working man who one day wakes up to discover he's famous for no apparent reason. Paparazzi chase him, models want to sleep with him, and all the attention goes to his head before doing his head in.
All four stories travel at a comfortable pace, working toward satisfying conclusions without ever being cloying or trite. Allen avoids criss-crossing the narratives, choosing instead to let the characters operate in their own sphere. The Benigni segment works an amusing, albeit predictable, punchline, wherein the sweetness of the story of the newlyweds is offset by the cynicism of how Jesse Eisenberg's stab at perceived passion amounts to not very much. Surprisingly, it's the storyline in which Allen casts himself that turns out to be the weakest. The gag goes on just a smidgen too long, though it's worth it for the amusing wordplay that finishes off To Rome With Love's penultimate scene.
To Rome With Love continues Woody Allen's tour of Europe, a geographical shift that has so far yielded a kind of career renaissance for the auteur. Though To Rome With Love is not as good as either the sexy Vicky Cristina Barcelona or the delightful Midnight in Paris, it's still a pleasing slice of Allen's particular brand of storytelling. It's also nice to see the old guy on screen again, as neurotic as ever, delivering angsty one-liners in his trademark style. If you like what Woody Allen does, To Rome With Love won't steer you wrong, and if you don't really know his work, it's a surprisingly welcoming place to start getting acquainted.