In “To Rome with Love,” his latest feature — roughly No. 42, depending on how you count — the prolific Woody Allen continues his long European vacation. In 2005, he went to London to make “Match Point” and received his best reviews in a decade. (Check out a list of his previous 10 films, and you'll see what I mean.) In 2008, his Spanish outing, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” was even better received; and last year's “Midnight in Paris” still better than that, becoming his highest-grossing film ever and earning him his first Oscar since “Hannah and Her Sisters” in 1986.
After 35 mostly New York-centric features, getting out of town seems to have gotten Allen's creative juices flowing better than in a long while. Let us not forget, however, that his three subsequent London-based films, “Scoop,” “Cassandra's Dream” and “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” were greeted with less enthusiasm. (Hey, I liked 'em!)
“To Rome” tells four stories. In one, a young aspiring architect (Jesse Eisenberg) receives advice from an apparently spectral vision of an older architect (Alec Baldwin) — visible to him alone, in the manner of Bogart in “Play It Again, Sam” — warning him not to abandon his longtime girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) for her flashy actress friend (Ellen Page, not your usual casting for an irresistible sex bomb). In another, a newlywed (Alessandro Tiberi) has brought his new wife (Alessandra Mastronardi) to Rome to meet his stiff, snooty relatives. When she gets lost, his relatives mistake a prostitute (Penelope Cruz) for his wife, a charade the “couple” have to continue. At the same time, the wife finds herself tempted by a come-on from a famous actor (Antonio Albanese) she has always had a crush on.
Meanwhile, a dull accountant (Roberto Benigni, in one of his least irritating performances) inexplicably becomes a celebrity, hounded by paparazzi; their appearance means he must be famous, which then justifies their appearance. Finally, a retired (and apparently awful) opera director (Allen, casting himself for the first time since “Scoop”) — in Rome with his wife (Judy Davis) to meet the fiance (Flavio Parenti) of their daughter (Alison Pill) — becomes obsessed with convincing the fiance's dad (Fabio Armiliato) that he must share his beautiful singing voice with the world. Unfortunately, he only sounds good in the shower.
“To Rome with Love,” while full of Allen's distinctive sense of absurdity and, as (almost) always, packed with hilarious jokes, is not as wholly satisfying as “Midnight in Paris.” Where that film told a single linear narrative, this one intercuts four stories with no direct relation; the tales don't intersect. In fact, it's both interesting and bizarre that Allen breaks a common convention: the stories don't even unfold within parallel time frames; that is, one of them takes place in a single day, while the rest involve weeks or even months.
If there is any common theme among them — and frankly it's a stretch — it's the different flavors of infatuation: with an intriguing new woman, with a famous actor, with fame itself, with the beauty of a tenor's voice. But we never get a chance to feel invested in a protagonist the way we do with Owen Wilson in “Midnight in Paris.”
Another possible reason that it doesn't quite reach the level of “Midnight in Paris” is that, like a few of the other “European tour” films, the stories don't seem inseparably bound to the location. The story of “Midnight in Paris” couldn't be set anywhere else; it was based on a very specific bit of Paris' image. One might argue that there were specifically Spanish (or, at least, Catalonian) elements in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” But, in “To Rome with Love,” the stories could be transplanted to New York with no change beyond the accents.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).