Woody Allen earned his most rhapsodic reviews in years and a career-best box office with 2011's “Midnight in Paris,” but Allen plays it safe and similar in “To Rome With Love,” a featherweight anthology of fantasias that begs for judicious editing or even radical cuts.
Given his near-constant output, it follows that not everything achieves canonical status in the Allen oeuvre, but that never makes it easy for fans, especially when recent works of subtle genius such as “Match Point” or “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” get followed by “Scoop” and “Whatever Works,” respectively. “To Rome With Love” is not in league with those other disappointments: It does not take a flame thrower to the good will generated by “Midnight in Paris,” but all four stories in this omnibus come across as minor ideas given far too much time and attention.
Each vignette comes powered by a whiff of mild magic, with the best story focusing on John (Alec Baldwin), a successful architect revisiting the Roman neighborhood where he lived after college. He runs into Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), whose life and romantic entanglement with two women (Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page) echoes John's younger days. Allen chooses not to carefully define what is happening in this section — it is left almost entirely to the viewer to interpret whether John is simply a wise older man who has literally and figuratively been there before, or if something more supernatural or dreamlike is taking place.
The balance of “To Rome With Love” consists of heavy-handed morality tales. Allen practically sleepwalks as Jerry, an opera producer who discovers a prodigiously talented singer but cannot bring him to the stage without some major engineering.
Elsewhere, a young Italian couple (Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi) hit a patch of wacky, mutual infidelity that could prove instructional for a happy marriage; and a fame-obsessed middle manager (Roberto Benigni) suddenly achieves notoriety without knowing why or how he did it. Allen's framing device for the film is an introduction and epilogue delivered by a traffic cop (Pierluigi Marchionne) who has no actual contact with any of the key characters in the film.
The excruciatingly tedious climax of Benigni's segment is a case in point on why “To Rome With Love” is not worthy of much adoration. Allen keeps his camera trained on a frantic Benigni as his character yammers at passers-by for a couple of minutes, without offering new insight or plot development and long after the director has effectively sledgehammered his point about the fleeting nature of celebrity.
Allen works constantly and has directed at least one film per year since 1982, an admirable productivity streak that is virtually unparalleled in his industry. But his filmography is so frustratingly hit-and-miss that modest successes such as “Midnight in Paris” tend to be overpraised. Rather than insisting on maintaining this work ethic, Allen should skip making travelogues for every beautiful city in Europe and institute more quality control.
— George Lang
‘To Rome With Love'
Starring: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Roberto Benigni. (Some sexual references)