Starting with its generic title, predictably eclectic cast, and cornball opening tune ("Volare," for Pete's sake), To Rome With Love looks like it's going to be another of Woody Allen's paint-by-numbers late-life divertissements. Those picture-postcard settings? In the bag. Not to mention that loose ensemble of coatrack characters—which bauble of your genius will you hang on me, Woody?—among whom he can parcel out his latest idle thoughts on art, love, and fate while indulging his septuagenarian fascination with the mating habits of comely young people.
And you know what? To a large extent, that's exactly what the movie is. Only it's sprightlier and more inventive than you'd expect. At any rate, Allen does seem to be in an unusually genial if not downright perky frame of mind. He gives whimsy its due without either nudging us to remember he's too good for it or reminding us of how bad he can be when he's doing it on automatic pilot.
It's a boon that the story's four strands never do intersect, which might have turned things fatally cutesy. There are thematic links, but they're fairly light-hearted (and all the more fetching because of that). Grounding us firmly in Woody territory, Jesse Eisenberg plays a young architecture student who has a chance encounter with a successful older architect (Alec Baldwin) who’s in Rome to revisit his youthful haunts. Then—shades of Play It Again, Sam—Baldwin becomes a fantasy kibitzer advising Eisenberg on his love life once he's caught between live-in girlfriend Greta Gerwig and saucy Rome newcomer Ellen Page.
Meanwhile, Allen, in his first onscreen appearance since 2006's Scoop, and wife Judy Davis have come to town to meet daughter Alison Pill's Italian fiancé (Flavio Parenti) and his family. That encounter turns fluky when the retired opera impresario Allen plays discovers that Pill's future father-in-law (real-life opera tenor Fabio Armiliato) has a voice like Pavarotti's. But only when he's singing in the shower, ultimately leading Allen's character to mount one of the odder stagings of Pagliacci ever seen.
That fantasy is the counterpart to Roberto Benigni's role as a mousy office clerk who suddenly finds himself famous for no reason at all—hounded by paparazzi, interviewed on TV about his breakfast routine, bedded by supermodels. If you thought you'd never be able to tolerate Benigni again, the good news is he's, well, tolerable. And the joke's final payoff—far from pissing on talentless "little people," which is what old hands count on from uncharitable Woody—is a long-overdue acknowledgment that renown like his is enviable, no matter how much he pretends to rue it.
Rounding things out are Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi redoing Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid. That is, they're a pair of provincial newlyweds who end up being tempted by other partners: Penelope Cruz as a high-class call girl and Antonio Albanese as a movie star. Their story is the movie's big tip of the hat to old-timey Italian sex farces like the one Wilder's flick was based on. Albanese, who's new to me—checking imdb.com leaves me not entirely sure if he's Italy's James Gandolfini or its Danny De Vito—is wonderfully cast. As for Cruz … ah, you know. When Pedro Almodovar figured out she was a great comedienne, he did the world a favor.
If all this sounds like minor Allen, that's cause for relief in my book. It's when he's being ambitious—which usually means scolding us, a way of concealing that he's punching above his weight as a thinker—that I look for a hole to crawl into. It may be revealing that To Rome With Love's nonchalant little riffs on fame and the creative life end up being more piquant and generous than anything in Allen's would-be post-La Dolce Vita big opus on the subject, 1998's turgid Celebrity.
In a way, these latter-day sketchbook movies of his bring him full circle by harking back to the casualness of his earliest ones, only with different concerns and vastly improved technique. With all his indebtedness to Fellini, it's sure taken him a long time to figure out that maybe Fellini did better when he wasn't striving to live up to his hype, too.
True, Allen’s more unattractive tics aren't MIA. Depending on your point of view, casting Ellen Page—who may be 25, but has a physique that's not only girlish but childlike—as a hot-to-trot Hollywood sexpot could either give you the creeps or just make you roll your eyes. But let's all be glad for Scarlett Johansson's sake that now she's too old and burly to be fit for his ogling or worse.
As for Allen’s own performance here, though it does improve or at least get less ditheringly mannerism-riddled, his rotten first scene with Davis reminds us why we haven't exactly missed Allen the actor. As usual, Allen the director has coached the most obvious stand-in for his younger self (Eisenberg) to mimic his own distinctively flustered line readings and body language, one reason Eisenberg isn't at his best.
Even so, To Rome With Love is the kind of movie—original in exact relation to its lack of something to prove, idiosyncratic without any self-consciousness, calmly silly—that old men should make. If we all live long enough, maybe we'll find out if that's true of old women. Not that I expect to be around when Lena Dunham turns 76, but I kind of hate knowing I'll miss it.