After London, Barcelona and Paris, the Woody Allen European Grand Tour moves to Rome - and throws away any good will built by the worldwide success of Midnight in Paris on a dismayingly below-par portmanteau comedy, suggesting Mr. Allen has by now become effectively an upscale Neil Simon. Granted, To Rome, with Love, structured as four unconnected episodes linked by their Rome setting (which reminds far too much of Mr. Simon's Plaza Suite for comfort) - does have a true love for classic cinema; it reminds us of the Italian episode films and classic comedies of the 1950s and 1960s (no points for guessing which Italian star of that era Penélope Cruz's big-hearted prostitute is meant to evoke). But it also shows just how much Mr. Allen is currently unable to reach those films' level.

     And, even more granted, there is as well a common thread to the four plots: they're all about the lies that we tell other people and each other in order to make it through the day, and about the idea of image and presentation - what people see us as instead of what we truly are. That was also at the heart of Midnight in Paris' dissertation on nostalgia. Here, however, there is a tired, tiresome aspect to plotting and scripting, making one of the film's one-liners resonate almost prophetically. "With age comes wisdom", says Jesse Eisenberg in what is probably the best of the four stories, and Alec Baldwin retorts "with age comes exhaustion".

     There is, to be sure, an exhausted aspect in To Rome, with Love, most visible in the outright lazy two "local" stories. The first recycles well-trod clichés (mousey country boy Alessandro Tiberi is forced to pass off high-flying prostitute Penélope Cruz as his wife at an important meeting that may secure a job in the capital); the second comments on modern life's 15 minutes of fame without really bringing anything new to the table (anonymous civil servant Roberto Benigni, much more subdued than his usual and all the better for it, finds himself famous overnight for no reason at all and can't quite take it).

     That leaves the two episodes starring transplanted Americans, introducing fantasy elements in the Purple Rose of Cairo/Oedipus Wrecks/Midnight in Paris mold. The best involves Mr. Baldwin reliving a student affair of his by proxy through Mr. Eisenberg, split between his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and a visiting friend of hers (Ellen Page); the funniest, but most inconsequential, has Mr. Allen himself as a retired opera director who finds his own private Caruso in the father of his future son-in-law, a remarkable tenor who can only sing under running water (real-life singer Fabio Armilato).

     Part of the problem with To Rome, with Love is that the four stories, unlike in the old portmanteau films, are not presented individually but intercut with no apparent rhyme or reason (since they're unconnected narratively, the pacing becomes awkward). And even though there are some lovely visual flourishes in Darius Khondji's lush lensing, with a few Steadycam and dolly shots thrown in for good measure, the whole just seems to grind along dispiritingly. Not that Mr. Allen has ever been much of a visual stylist, but since the scripting is here so uninspired the pedestrian handling is even more visible, resulting in a paper-thin, reasonably enjoyable time-passer that is unable to hold a candle to the director's better work - or even to minor highlights such as Midnight in Paris.

Cast: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Antonio Albanese, Fabio Armilato, Alessandra Mastronardi, Ornella Muti, Flavio Parenti, Alison Pill, Riccardo Scamarcio, Alessandro Tiberi

Director and writer: Mr. Allen
Cinematography: Darius Khondji (colour, processing by DeLuxe)
Designer: Anne Seibel
Costumes: Sonia Grande
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
Producers: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Giampaolo Letta, Faruk Alatan (Medusa Film, Gravier Productions and Perdido Productions)
Italy/USA, 2012, 112 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9, Lisbon, September 14th 2012


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