Frisky and frivolous, Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love” serves up four comical vignettes, intercut but otherwise unrelated, in the latest stop on the director’s breezy tour of romantic Euro locales. Rome makes a refreshing if somewhat superficial backdrop as various broad caricatures — half of them American, the rest Italian — contend with semi-surreal complications to their private lives in the Eternal City. This pleasantly diverting, none-too-strenuous arthouse excursion feels like a throwback to Allen’s short-story anthologies, with the added pleasure of seeing a game cast play along. Pic has already earned $10.2 million in Italy, where it opened April 20.
While Allen has been criticized for abandoning New York to spend his sunset years traipsing around the world’s most beautiful cities, the truth is that the consistently prolific septuagenarian has been delighting a wider audience than ever with his recent visits to London (“Match Point”), Barcelona (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) and Paris (“Midnight in Paris,” Allen’s top-grossing pic).
The standard complaint goes that Allen is now making movies for the very pseudo-intellectuals his characters have long derided, as if the multihyphenate’s lifelong preoccupation with death must necessarily become more profound the nearer he gets to the end. Instead, Allen seems increasingly relaxed, as if determined to meet that tall dark stranger with a chuckle, an attitude borne out by this relatively casual Roman holiday.
Allen himself appears in one of the stories as Jerry, a less successful version of himself: a retired opera director anxious that he hasn’t left his mark. Jerry and his wife (Judy Davis) fly to Rome to meet their future son-in-law, Michelangelo (“I Am Love’s” Flavio Parenti). Jerry views the young man like some sort of virus their daughter (Alison Pill) contracted during her summer vacation, until he overhears Michelangelo’s dad (Fabio Armiliato) singing in the shower, inspiring him to sidetrack the wedding plans in favor of a self-centered scheme to stage an opera around his untrained “discovery,” with one hilarious hitch.
In the film’s other Americans-abroad chapter, a successful architect (Alec Baldwin, the picture of late-life security) runs into a happily coupled architecture student who might as well be his younger self, played by Jesse Eisenberg, an actor born to star in a Woody Allen movie. When the kid’s naive g.f. (Greta Gerwig) invites her admittedly seductive pal (Ellen Page) to stay with them, Baldwin’s character hovers around, watching with knowing experience as the inevitable comes to pass. However cliched, in Allen’s hands, the situation yields fresh laughs, although it might have been more interesting to see free spirit Gerwig and hyper-calculated Page swap roles.
The pic’s two remaining stories drift away from self-portraiture toward light satire as Allen recruits Italian thesps (plus Penelope Cruz) to poke fun at local stereotypes. In the first, a newlywed couple (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) are separated on the eve of a big business meeting. Through a series of odd coincidences, the wife spends the afternoon with a movie star (Antonio Albanese) while her husband is stuck presenting a prostitute (Cruz) as his date.
Finally, in the film’s slightest strand, Roberto Benigni plays an unremarkable prole who’s caught off-guard when everyone suddenly begins to treat him like a celebrity. Still, even the weakest story works better than the strongest chapter in an anthology effort like the Italy-set “Boccaccio ’70” (1962), and because Allen conceived all four, with d.p. Darius Khondji on hand to differentiate and tie together the various episodes, the film coheres nicely.
Like lost tales from “The Decameron,” the assembly offers amusing riffs on familiar moral dilemmas, united by the fact that each revolves around a man with little to no willpower. To keep things flowing, Allen dynamically interweaves the stories, despite their varying timelines. (The Eisenberg-Gerwig-Page triangle transpires over several weeks, while the newlyweds bit occurs almost in real time.)
By juggling such a large ensemble, Allen doesn’t really have the time or space to flesh out characters, who remain almost cartoonishly one-dimensional. But the film feels like 15% too much as it is, with each of the strands coming in slightly longer and loopier than necessary. When in Rome, Allen does as he always has, adapting the city to his sensibility. For all the red-blooded talk of philandering, the pic is remarkably chaste, and with the exception of one F-word (used as a verb), this could be the cleanest R-rated film in recent memory.