★★★ (out of 5 stars)
After leaving his beloved New York to shoot stories in London, Paris and Barcelona, Woody Allen's European tour has now reached the capital of Italy, where To Rome With Love sees his familiar neuroses at play among lovestruck locals and tourists alike.
For two young newlyweds (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) from Pordenone, the big city is a test of fidelity, as a series of misunderstandings have the bride being seduced by her favorite movie star (Antonio Albanese) while the groom passes off a hooker (Penélope Cruz, vamping it up effortlessly) to his family in her stead. For a plain Italian businessman (Roberto Benigni), the town that gave birth to paparazzi suddenly marks him as the inexplicable target of tabloid fascination.
For an American architect (Alec Baldwin), it's a trip down memory lane as he revisits the neighborhood where he spent his younger years, runs into an awestruck student abroad (Jesse Eisenberg), and serves as that kid's conscience when his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) welcomes her notoriously seductive best friend (Ellen Page) to stay with them. And lastly, for a retired opera director (Allen himself), it's a chance to reclaim professional glory when the humble father-in-law-to-be of his recently engaged daughter (Alison Pill) proves to be a full-blown tenor whenever he sings in the shower ... but only then.
Varying in degrees of absurdity and adultery, these stories are hardly tethered to conventional notions of reality or time, let alone to one another. Plots that take place over a single afternoon are intercut with those spanning weeks, and none feel especially beholden to this particular location, as if they were left to tumble in the writer-director's head, strictly associated here by their overlapping focus on the allures of fame and romantic temptation.
Fortunately, when the camera's gaze does turn to the setting, cinematographer Darius Khondji shoots Rome as warmly throughout Rome as he did the City of Lights in Midnight in Paris. Despite a touristy emphasis on the standard sights – the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps – each monument has rarely looked more postcard-perfect, and although needlessly bookended by the film's two most grandiose Italian caricatures, the stories themselves mostly charm.
It's amusing to see the young groom anxiously appeal to elite businessmen with whom Cruz's prostitute is already quite acquainted, although neither he nor his cherished bride ultimately see any consequence for their mutual acts of infidelity. Meanwhile, Benigni's sudden-celebrity segment exhausts its satirical point early and often, stranding the Oscar-winning actor in dumbstruck meerkat mode.
The love triangle fares a bit better, with Baldwin earnestly doling out wisdom and warnings to an occasionally attentive audience. (The extent to which Baldwin's character is actually present, or if Eisenberg's flustered youth is simply an echo of his own past, remains unclear in keeping with Allen's frequent flirtation with the tenets of magic realism.) Relegated to building up Page's legendary reputation, Gerwig all but vanishes here, and Pill finds herself similarly minimized once Allen becomes tenor-crazed, though the subsequent shower-staged opera performances stand as highlights.
Her mother and his wife, a shrink played by Judy Davis, blatantly underlines Allen's equation of retirement with death, a fact clearly reflected in his own indefatigable work ethic. As it stands in the improbable wake of Midnight in Paris, it's as generally affable as it is inarguably minor.
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