Funny in fragments, Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love" is crammed with enough unrelated incidents to fill one of his short-story collections and has the same lack of cohesion. The director's latest European excursion eagerly satirizes a touristic point of view while simultaneously indulging it by romanticizing the titular scene. As usual from Allen, the first-rate cast -- a much larger collection of international faces than his last few ventures -- relishes the opportunity to dig into Allen's frantic one-liners and self-deprecating wit. But even Allen himself, appearing in front of the camera for his first role since 2005's "Scoop," looks a little lost in the mess.
Allen inadvertently opens "To Rome With Love" by establishing a metaphor for its flaws: A loopy traffic cop, initially the movie's narrator, inadvertently causes an accident and then addresses the audience about the swirling mini-narratives about the unfold. Like the cars, the ensuing plot veers wildly from one place to the next, slamming a series of events together without even attempting to make them flow. This might not matter much if individual scenes carried enough of Allen's wit to render the lack of fluidity irrelevant, but the material carries the treacly, half-baked feeling of Allen on autopilot.
Regardless, there are enough good ideas and talented actors to turn "To Rome With Love" into an intermittently engaging experience. Despite an annoyingly redundant organ score, the movie contains a lavish depiction of Roman sights and sounds in warm, evocative images thanks to Darius Khondji's typically reassuring cinematography. Since the movie looks cinematic and feels the weight in every scene of Allen's trademark wit, it sometimes transcend their simplistic roots. This is not "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask," but it similarly eschews structure for vignettes.
These include the plight of budding architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), living abroad with girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and suffering from mounting attraction to her visiting actress friend Monica (Ellen Page). Jack also takes advice from a mentor he meets on the streets, established architect John (Alec Baldwin), who used to live in town and whispers romantic advice in Jack's ear at every turn.
In the other arc involving an American abroad, Hayley (Alison Pill) gets engaged to Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) and her parents (Judy Davis and Allen) venture to Rome for the wedding. Allen, as retired talent manager Jerry, finds that Michelangelo's father Giancarlo (prominent Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato) has an unappreciated ability as an opera singer that could rejuvenate Jerry's career. However, Giancarlo's operatic strengths only come to the fore when he's in the shower, a conflict that leads Jerry to an unconventional solution and sets up one of the undeniably strangest sequences in Allen's prolific career: Elaborately staged opera performed around a nude man as he bathes. It would make a far better case for "To Rome With Love" if excerpted for a clip reel containing highlights from Allen's European films; in context, it's another story.
The other two plot lines exclusively involve Roman characters going through the motions of absurd farcical events. Roberto Benigni plays middle-class everyman Leopoldo Pisanello, who wakes up one day to find himself inexplicably transformed into a celebrity. This Kafkaesque scenario, which finds Leopoldo luxuriating in the red carpet glow and telling the media about his uneventful day as they cling to every word, has a trim, tacked-on quality, as if Allen merely tossed another idea into the fray without regard for whether or not it would work. The same issue applies to the troubles dogging a sheltered young man (Alessandro Tiberi) traveling to Rome to introduce his wife (Alessandra Mastronardi) to his judgmental family and inadvertently growing entangled with a prostitute (Penélope Cruz), whom he must haul around as if she were his new bride to avoid suspicion.
As usual, the cast has fun with these rushed, underdeveloped roles, but in this case nobody looks happier than Allen, clearly in his element charming audiences even if his typically neurotic delivery has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. (A sample line: "I was never a communist. I couldn't share a bathroom.") If Allen's screen presence is decisively old school, the casting of Eisenberg, Page and Gerwig creates the perception that the filmmaker has found another new generation of actors to play his usual schmucks. None of that trio, however, quite fits the mature, cultured personas given to them. Instead, they come across like Woody Allen's Rugrats.
Then again, not a whole lot makes sense about "To Rome With Love" in the first place. Allen's loose approach relies on a kind of magic realism to prop up many of its unlikely events, from Baldwin's inexplicable ability to hover in the background during seemingly candid moments between Eisenberg and his new lover to the aforementioned shower opera. But while the movie may aim for the same fantasy of a distant land that Allen created with "Midnight in Paris," it lacks a lucid concept.
More than any noted comedy director, Allen's flaws as a filmmaker can be easily excused if he manages to land enough jokes. In "To Rome With Love," he repeatedly tries and mostly fails to land them. There's nothing wrong with an old-fashioned Allen yukfest, but there's certainly such a thing as too much of a bad one.
Criticwire grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having already opened to modest returns in Europe, "To Rome With Love" opened LAFF last night ahead of its release by Sony Pictures Classics in New York and Los Angeles on June 22. It may enjoy a solid opening weekend due to Allen's brand and recent commercial success with "Midnight in Paris," but poor reviews and word of mouth will probably hold it back from much success beyond that period.
Watch the trailer for "To Rome With Love" below: