Can Woody Allen do for the Eternal City what he did for the City of Light in his Oscar-winning script for Midnight in Paris? Don’t get greedy. To Rome With Love lacks the overarching theme of time and regret that distinguished Allen’s last romantic comedy, but it has pleasures galore. Start with a voluptuous Penélope Cruz as a hooker trying and failing hilariously to pass herself off as the wife of a new groom (Alessandro Tiberi) to fool his conservative family. Move on to the Woodman himself as a retired opera director, in Rome with his wife (Judy Davis) to meet the Italian fiance (Flavio Parenti) of their daughter (Alison Pill). It turns out the fiance’s undertaker father can sing like Pavarotti in the shower. No wonder, since famed tenor Fabio Armiliato plays the role. The fun uncorks when Allen’s bumbling American tries to bring the undertaker and his shower to the opera stage.
And so it goes in this episodic culture-clash comedy in which the laughs are decidedly hit-and-miss. Allen scores comic points at the expense of reality-show fame by casting Italy’s Oscar-winning clown Roberto Benigni as an ordinary guy who becomes famous for nothing until the paparazzi move on to the next nothing. But the joke wears thin.
The most touching segment features a tart and tender Alec Baldwin as a vacationing architect who encounters a younger version of himself in Jesse Eisenberg and advises him not to make the same mistakes, like having sex with the BFF (Ellen Page) of the woman you love (Greta Gerwig).
What links all these characters is Rome itself, and cinematographer Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris) uses the city as a canvas to paint with color and light. Tourist traps are largely avoided. This is the vital city that inspired Fellini – alive and lived in. When an actor falters or a joke falls flat, Roma stays fresh and dynamic. You can’t take your eyes off it.