Up to this point, Woody Allen's current European tour — Match Point (London), Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris — had reinvigorated his work. Less personal and, for a while, less driven by his persona than his increasingly curdled '90s films and more consequential than the forgettable comedies with which Allen began the decade, these films paired attractive actors with more attractive locales and gave the performers something reasonably smart and breezy with which to work.
But Allen's persona returned in last year's enjoyable but pandering and somewhat overpraised Midnight in Paris, with star Owen Wilson finding a middle ground between his own cosmic beach-bum sunniness and a neurotic chatterbox Allen impersonation. And in the new To Rome With Love, Allen's put himself back in the picture, in a movie so inconsequential that it barely seems to exist beyond its postcard qualities.
To Rome With Love is like the Allen version of those Garry Marshall Valentine's Day/New Year's Eve films, with a bunch of name actors bouncing around in light little intersecting stories. The theme here is the title city, which cinematographer Darius Khondji (who also lensed Midnight in Paris) captures in beautiful, sun-kissed panoramas.
The plotlines — there are four main ones, though one cleaves into separate strands for a while — don't actually intersect much. You might wish they would. I kept wanting Jesse Eisenberg, who plays an American student living in Rome, and the underused Alison Pill, who plays Allen's summer-tourist daughter, to meet up and escape to some other movie. Instead, Eisenberg is stuck juggling a dull, nice girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and an annoying new love interest (Ellen Page), with Alec Baldwin — "that well-known American architect" — acting as romantic consigliere and the effervescent Pill, here in rare normal-gal mode, stuck offering reaction to Allen's stammering vaudeville zingers.
Among the other players are Penelope Cruz as a prostitute (the lecherous old Allen makes sure his host cities aren't his films' only eye candy) and Roberto Benigni as a middle-class Roman inexplicably beset by paparazzi.
There are enough attempts at playfulness here — breaking the fourth wall, bits of theatrical surrealism, etc. — that the film feels like a mild attempt at replicating Luis Buñuel, a classic Euro filmmaker Allen admires enough to have included as a character in Midnight in Paris. But Buñuel's apparent effortlessness took imagination and work, where this lazy, inert travelogue shows plenty of strain.
To Rome With Love will make you want to walk these streets but not meet the people in them.
To Rome With Love
Opening Friday, July 6th