Woody Allen said everything he needed to say about Italian cinema in “Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask.”
A segment in that film about a woman with a dangerous proclivity for al fresco sex took its cues from “La Dolce Vita” with its sports cars, dangerously plunging necklines and ludicrous machismo, and struck the perfect balance between parody and homage.
Forty years later, Mr. Allen revisited Rome for this pointless and intermittently entertaining quartet of stories about American expats and native Italians caught up in ambition, love, sex, betrayal and fame.
A few of these feel like rejected short-story brainstorms. There’s one about an undertaker (Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato) who can only sing in the shower finding a way to star in a professional opera. This is good for a few surrealistic moments, including a staging of the climactic scene of “Pagliacci” in which Mr. Armiliato performs in a shower that is wheeled onto the stage. But the story, which features Mr. Allen himself as an opera director from New York visiting Italy to meet his daughter’s fiance, labors to reach this point.
Another features an ordinary office clerk named Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) who wakes up one morning to find himself unaccountably famous. He’s chased by paparazzi, in demand at film premieres, and seduced by beautiful women. While he affects to be tortured by this inexplicable change in his fortunes, he’s even more crushed when it evaporates.
Jesse Eisenberg, who played Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” plays the familiar part of the neurotic Woody Allen stand-in character. As Jack, an architecture student, he’s forced to make a choice between his bland but faithful girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and her impetuous, potentially destructive friend Monica (Ellen Page). It’s a perfunctory tale, enlivened (if you can call it that) by Mr. Eisenberg’s halting Woody Allen-style line reading, and by the presence of Alec Baldwin as John, an older version of Jack who does his best to keep Jack from making the same romantic mistakes he made in his youth.
The most enjoyable story, and the only one that really plays off of Rome’s chaotic, sensationalist vibe, gets the least attention from the filmmaker. Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are a young provincial couple honeymooning in Rome. Antonio has wealthy relatives who want to fix him up with a job. But they never get to meet his Milly, who gets lost in Rome’s maze of winding streets and eventually wanders onto a film set where she meets an actor she admires. Meanwhile, Antonio is waylaid by a prostitute, played by Penelope Cruz, when she mistakes him for a client.
Rome is just the latest stop on Mr. Allen’s European tour. In the last few years, he’s found friendly financing from tourist bureaus in London, Barcelona and Paris. A Woody Allen film is fast becoming a status symbol for European capitals, like a Frank Gehry building. Mr. Allen does his bit for the cause — with plenty of shots of the Spanish Steps, the Coliseum, St. Peter’s and other landmarks. But unlike the backdrop, “To Rome With Love” is almost aggressively flat, without enough real laughs to count on one hand.
TITLE: “To Rome With Love”
CREDITS: Written and directed by Woody Allen
RATING: R for profanity and sexual situations
RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS