Armed with his tourist map (the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, the Forum, Villa Borghese) and a bit of the magical whimsy of his last film, Woody Allen has pieced together To Rome With Love, which is what it says it is: a love letter to the great Italian city.
Alas, it's a love letter written on the fly, with brushstroke characters working their way through a cluster of sketchy, disconnected plotlines. Some of these work better than others - and one sustained joke actually achieves something along the lines of comic inspiration - but ultimately Allen's 46th feature, albeit lovely to behold (it's shot by the great Darius Khondji), is oh so slight and forgettable.
For a real feel for the pulse and people of Rome, seek out Nanni Moretti's Caro Diario. The first third of this 1993 gem offers a guided tour, via Vespa, of the city courtesy of Moretti, the writer/director/star (who, as it happens, is often described as the Italian Woody Allen).
To Rome With Love starts with a traffic cop on his little dais in the center of a thrum of cars and scooters, waving his arms and welcoming us to his sun-burnished, teeming town. There are a million stories in the naked city, or something like that, and Allen proceeds to throw a few of them against the wall, like a cook tossing strands of spaghetti to see what sticks.
There is Alec Baldwin, as an American architect (malls, mostly) revisiting the quartiere where he spent a memorable ex-pat interlude in his youth. And where a young American architect, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), now seems to inhabit the same space - emotional and physical - that Baldwin's John once knew. Jack lives with Sally (Greta Gerwig), and Sally has invited her friend Monica (Ellen Page) to visit. Monica is frank, free-spirited, bisexual - how can Jack not fall under her spell?
And there is Woody himself (appearing on camera for the first time since 2006's Scoop), playing a recently retired opera director who has come to Rome with his wife (a winningly acerbic Judy Davis). The couple are here to meet Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), the handsome Italian who is engaged to marry their daughter (Alison Pill, Zelda Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris). But when Allen's character, Jerry, hears Michelangelo's father singing in the shower, ideas of retirement are thrown out the window. The fact that the father, Giancarlo, is played by the real-life tenor Fabio Armiliato suggests where this storyline is going. And it's going someplace funny. If only the rest of To Rome With Love achieved this same level of ingenious silliness!
Penélope Cruz, doing her best impression of '60s-era Sophia Loren, is a call girl who makes her call to the wrong hotel room, throwing a provincial newlywed (Alessandro Tiberi) into a tizzy - and into all-out panic when his in-laws show up. Meanwhile, his wife, played by the beautiful Alessandra Mastronardi, gets lost looking for a hair salon, wandering down labyrinthine side streets and falling into her own improbable adventure.
And then there is Roberto Benigni, the clownish Oscar winner of Life Is Beautiful, cast as a boring Italian everyman who inexplicably becomes the focus of a paparazzi manhunt. His every move - his morning shaves, his office chats - is fodder for the tabloids, the TV news.
As Allen proved in his last stopover in a European capital, Midnight in Paris, a little surrealism goes a long way. But Midnight in Paris' time-traveling gimmick had real charm about it. Benigni's flirtation with fame and existential mystery feels like a slog.
Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.