‘To Rome With Love’: Woody fiddles

June 21, 2012

Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love” is a valentine to that city, rendered through a series of semi-connected stories set in the Italian hub.

It’s light and frothy, mixing silliness, romance, magic realism and absurdity. It may not be Allen’s most cohesive film, but it has its charms (and its flaws), nonetheless.

Allen assembles a disparate and not necessarily interconnected group of plots, which feel like short stories or one-act plays. Mixing them together takes the pressure off each to carry too much weight – yet together they provide their own delights, adding up to Allen’s take on the kind of breezy Italian sex comedy that always seemed to star Marcello Mastroianni or Sophia Loren (or both) in the 1960s.

The film starts with Alison Pill, as Hayley, an American tourist asking directions from a handsome Italian, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Before long, they’re engaged and her parents, Jerry (Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis) are winging their way to Rome to meet their future son-in-law and his family.

Jerry is an unhappily retired record executive who dabbled in directing opera. At the apartment of Michelangelo’s parents, Jerry hears Michelangelo’s father, Giancarlo (famed tenor Fabio Armiliato), singing opera in the shower and is floored by his talent. Giancarlo is a mortician, however, who has no interest in performing in public. So Jerry figures out a way to get Giancarlo onto a stage in a portable shower stall.

Another segment deals with newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi), just arrived from a small town, who come to Rome to meet with his uncles, who promise him a well-paying job. Milly, however, wants to get her hair done before meeting her new in-laws – and winds up getting lost trying to find a beauty salon.

Milly falls into a whirlwind romance with a famously womanzing movie star she meets while wandering the streets. Antonio, meanwhile, is the mistaken recipient of a visit from a prostitute, Anna (Penelope Cruz), who shows up in his hotel room moments before his uncles arrive. So he passes her off as his wife.

A third strand deals with a famous architect, John (Alec Baldwin), who lived in Rome as a student and is back on vacation. He gets lost looking for his old apartment – and is taken in by a budding architect, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who takes him home to meet his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig).

John listens in horror as Sally announces that her sexy friend, an actress named Monica (Ellen Page), is coming to visit. John cautions Jack against letting Monica stay with them; Jack is asking for trouble because he inevitably will be attracted to Monica, the kind of woman who will then ruin his life.

The final story deals with a lowly clerk, Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), who wakes up one morning to find a horde of paparazzi camped outside his door. For no reason, he is suddenly a celebrity, whose every move is fodder for TV coverage (“What did you have for breakfast today?”). His boss gives him a better office – and a sexy secretary – and he and his wife become instant attractions at red-carpet premieres and the best restaurants.

None of these pieces is substantial enough to carry an entire film; they’re more like extended comic sketches. The Leopoldo plotline, for example, offers obvious thoughts about the capricious, fleeting and addictive nature of fame. But it works better than it should because Benigni is such an inventively physical comedian.

Similarly, the prostitute storyline evokes laughs because Cruz has such a brash (and, obviously, carnal) presence. Still, given the farcical nature of the subplot, Allen wastes a couple of opportunities for big laughs. Meanwhile, the Milly subplot also seems funnier in concept than execution.

The John/Jack;/Monica segments are funniest when Baldwin pops up as the sardonic observer, who always seems to be on hand – as a kind of sarcastic Jiminy Cricket figure – to comment on what Jack is doing. Is John real? Is Jack a memory of his younger self? Allen’s not explaining and it doesn’t really matter.

In other words, “To Rome With Love” is light, sometimes frothy, diverting without being particularly memorable. It is enjoyable but minor Woody Allen, a film that keeps you watching and chuckling, if not exactly laughing out loud.

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