After the biggest commercial hit of his career, not to mention another Academy Award for Best Screenplay (Midnight in Paris), Woody Allen is back for his 43rd film as writer-director, To Rome With Love.

A trifle by any definition, To Rome With Love is minor Allen, the work of a well-respected filmmaker content to produce unchallenging films filled with superficial pleasures, albeit pleasures that make To Rome With Love more than passably watchable or adequately entertaining.

To Rome With Love starts promisingly enough, with an Italian traffic cop stepping out his pre-assigned role and breaking the fourth wall. The cop introduces the major and minor players in To Rome With Love. Once he’s completed his task, he permanently exits the cinematic stage. His presence suggests that To Rome With Love will play, possibly even subvert narrative form, but follows doesn’t. It’s Allen being Allen, examining the virtues and vicissitudes inherent in modern romance not-quite-Italian-style. Before To Rome With Love ends on a seemingly optimistic note, however, Allen’s characters reach their final, mostly optimistic destinations, Allen puts them and, by extension, his audience, through their respective paces.

When we first meet Allen’s predictably neurotic character, Jerry, an avowed atheist afraid of dying, he’s in mid-mini-breakdown on a flight headed to Rome with his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis). Their daughter, Hayley (Alison Pill), vacationing in Italy for the summer, falls in love with an Italian attorney, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). In just one short montage, Hayley and Michelangelo segue from what seems like a summer fling into the promise of a long-term commitment, marriage (preceded by an engagement, of course). The usual misunderstandings and miscommunications do little to derail Hayley and Michelangelo’s relationship. When Jerry, a retired opera director, hears Michelangelo’s undertaker father, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), singing in the shower, he decides to make Leonardo into the next, great singing sensation over and above the objections of Giancarlo’s family.

In another storyline, John (Alec Baldwin), a middle-aged architect who once lived in Rome, acts as a mentor and guide to Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), an architect student. Jack has a bright future, a loving girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig), and a romantic conundrum in the form of Sally’s friend, Monica (Ellen Page), a sexually adventurous young woman who’s everything Sally isn’t. Almost simultaneously, a twenty-something couple, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi), arrive in Rome. Errant directions lead to two sub-stories. In Antonio’s case, Anna (Penélope Cruz), arrives unexpectedly in his hotel room. When his relatives arrive, apparently catching Antonio and Anna en flagrante, Antonio’s forced to pretend Anna’s his new wife. Anna wanders onto a movie set, meeting Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese), a rotund, height- and -follicle challenged actor considered the sexiest man in Italy.

The last storyline doesn’t involve a romantic pairing per se, but it’s linked thematically to the others through the inexplicable circumstances that turn an Italian everyman, Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), into a national celebrity. Confused at first, amused at second, and ultimately seduced by the seemingly inexhaustible adoration of the press and public, Leopoldo learns to love the life of a celebrity and its many perks, including Rome’s most beautiful women. Allen works the absurdity inherent in the creation and maintenance of celebrities for all of its satirical worth, but the critique isn’t particularly new or fresh in or out of Allen’s oeuvre, but it’s helped by Benigni’s rubber-faced performance. Benigni registers shock, bemusement, and pleasure with the smallest of gestures or changes in body language.

Unfortunately, in the other storylines, Allen’s more interested in repeating familiar observations about love and death (not necessarily in that order), regret and loss, and the neuroses that cause and/or follow romantic entanglements to dig deeper into subtext or themes. Allen too often opts for the easy joke or physical gag rather than the more complex, more profound version of either (or both). For example, Antonio’s nervous, jittery non-date with the hooker barely pays off after an overextended set-up. Cruz handles the physical requirements of her role with aplomb, including Italian language chores, but has to little to do otherwise. Anna turns into an easily manipulated, dumbstruck super-fan when she encounters Luca. Initially depicted as insecure, Sally repeatedly ignores the danger signs of Monica’s presence in her romantic life. It’s just one more example that Allen often fails, to create fully formed, three-dimensional female characters in his films.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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