TO ROME WITH LOVE is going to be compared unfavorably to last year's Midnight in Paris, a breezy dollop of magical realism that ended up being the most financially successful film in Woody Allen's career. But To Rome with Love is completely likeable in its own right, even if it's entirely without surprise or consequence—two things audiences should no longer require from Allen, perhaps history's most maddeningly dependable filmmaker.
Allen continues his late-career tour of Europe in a Rome whose vast history barely registers beyond To Rome's gorgeous backdrops. Allen effortlessly spins four separate, slight stories, each a romantic fantasy designed to reverberate off the Eternal City's ruins and monuments. In one, a newlywed couple (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) comes to Rome and gets separated—one of Allen's running jokes is how easy it is to get lost in the city's labyrinth of streets. The husband finds himself in the company of a gorgeous prostitute (Penélope Cruz) while the wife has lunch with her favorite movie star. In another, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) gets the hots for his girlfriend's neurotic best friend Monica (Ellen Page) in a story that's practically a spoof of Allen's other movies. For unidentified reasons, a visiting architect (Alec Baldwin) is able to see and interact with them, voicing their unspoken desires and warning them away from disaster. That Allen doesn't fully pin his fable down to logic—perhaps Baldwin is Eisenberg's character, years later?—is one of To Rome's charms.
Similarly unexplained is the sudden fame of Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni); one morning, he's hounded by paparazzi, thrust onto television, and given the red-carpet treatment everywhere he goes. And lastly, there's the story of Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), a mortician who just happens to be a terrific opera singer—while he's in the shower. Allen, wearing pants hitched so high it'd embarrass your grandfather, is naturally the best part of the movie, playing a retired impresario who tries to lure Giancarlo out of the shower and onto the big stage. The story's punchline is telegraphed so far in advance that it won't surprise anyone, but Allen handles it so winningly that it's as joyously surreal as his best gags in Sleeper.
There's probably too much in To Rome—it feels overlong, and there's a total lack of urgency to any of its storylines. But Allen's at the point where he's allowed to write postcards rather than plots: Here's a pretty picture, some witty words, a signature, an exotic stamp. Who doesn't love getting a postcard?