For some of us, Woody Allen could film the phone book and we’d find pleasure in it: How nice all those listings might look in his signature white-on-black Windsor typeface. Poignancy, too: The phone book, like the Woody Allen movie, doesn’t seem as useful to as many people as it once did. But after a very bracing “Midnight in Paris,” he’s off, maybe hurriedly, “To Rome With Love.” The new film faintly tingles with unfocused quasi-recollections of earlier movies and motifs. At times it even seems vaguely demented, as if a test to determine whether we’ll just stand politely by as Allen finally descends, doddering, into the void. At other times, though, it’s invitingly dreamy. This is Fellini country, after all.
The tales, very loosely interwoven, are these. Beset one morning by a random mob of paparazzi, a middle-class Roman everyman and self-described schmuck (Roberto Benigni) becomes suddenly famous for no apparent reason. Getting to know the fiancé (Flavio Parenti) of their daughter (Alison Pill), a retired American opera director (Allen) and his psychiatrist wife (Judy Davis) discover the fiancé’s mortician father (Fabio Armiliato) to be a world-class tenor — who can only sing in the shower. Honeymooning provincial newlyweds (Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi) find themselves separated by the respective temptations of a call girl (Penélope Cruz) and a movie star (Antonio Albanese). An American architect (Alec Baldwin) revisits bittersweet memories of youthful romantic missteps, as evidently replayed before his eyes by Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, and Ellen Page.
Baldwin seems the most at ease of the bunch, maybe from having been in similarly muted magical-realist territory before, as the wisecracking apparition of an affectionate ex-lover visible only to Mia Farrow in Allen’s “Alice.” Certainly he comports himself more casually than the younger American actors here who nearly choke on Allen’s generationally anachronistic dialogue. The Italians, and Cruz, suffer mild translation losses too, although it’s also clear that Benigni hasn’t had this much fun pulling off a Roman riff since he played the compulsively confessional taxi driver in Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth.”
The aspiration to work with Allen has become automatic among contemporary actors, who reportedly do so on the condition that they see only those portions of script in which their characters appear. The risk of such auteurist dominion is that all big-picture views, then, are privileged and purposely myopic: An assistant director deals with production scheduling, not narrative consistency; a script supervisor monitors only the minutiae of continuity between takes; and an editor’s efforts necessarily aim for Allen’s final approval. Meanwhile keeping busy in front of the camera as well as behind it might well leave Allen too distracted or exhausted to tidy up expositional false starts and loose ends, not to mention meager ideas and misfired jokes. It shouldn’t be a problem for a filmmaker with so much experience, but Allen has a way of making seniority seem like complacency.
So was the title change his idea? For a while this movie went by “The Bop Decameron,” and there is that brisk tempo, that noodly phrasing and sometimes ragged harmony, although any allusions to Boccaccio seem mostly academic. (Italy did produce a spate of portmanteau films at just about the time Allen came of age.) Somebody — maybe a producer, or maybe Allen himself — managed at least one clarifying insight: Just get the word “Rome” in there somewhere and then go wait at the bank. Of course he’ll reap complaints about being out of touch with reality, even in a season whose other offerings include a guy who’s part spider, a guy with a talking Teddy bear, and Tyler Perry back again in fat-suit drag. (Brand maintenance as minstrelsy: discuss.) But anyway, the routines are merely perpetual. It’s the city that’s eternal.