Perhaps the only refreshing thing about "To Rome with Love," Woody Allen's follow-up to his most successful film of all time, 2011's "Midnight in Paris," is whenever Alec Baldwin looks in the direction of a camera, the audience will not feel physically threatened.
Yes, it's a cheap joke, but it turns out Baldwin is a standout in Allen's nonsensical but dulcet meditation on love, regret, narcissism and banality. More on that later.
Our story begins with a traffic guard in Rome, standing upon his pedestal directing traffic as he directly addresses the audience, setting up the four stories we're about to endure. I interpret this character as a bit of a dramatic crutch for Allen, who perhaps was feeling a little less confident in both the script he wrote and his direction, because he was also acting in the movie.
Here's the rundown of our four stories:
American tourist Hayley (Alison Pill), in Rome for the summer, falls in love with a Roman lawyer. Allen and Judy Davis play Haley's parents, Jerry and Phyllis. Turns out Jerry is a retired opera director - wouldn't you know it! - and his future son-in-law's father, Giancarlo, a very happy mortician, has an incredible singing voice (it helps when you're played by leading Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato). It's a chance for Jerry to come out of retirement by staging an opera featuring Giancarlo singing in the shower.
Young Italian couple Antonio and Milly travel to Rome to meet with tightly-wound Antonio's extended family, who are on the verge of helping Antonio land the job of his dreams. Those dreams turn into nightmares when Milly wanders from the hotel, loses her phone, gets lost and winds up hanging out with the most famous actor in Italy. Topping things off, a hooker, played by Penelope Cruz, walks into Antonio's hotel thinking he's her john for the day, and Antonio's stodgy old relatives walk into the room while she's attempting to take advantage of him.
Roberto Benigni's Leopoldo is a clerk, described as an "average man" with a wife and two kids. He also becomes famous for no reason: Suddenly reporters follow him everywhere, he's a sought-after guest for news programs and he's having threesomes with famous actresses. This is clearly Allen's commentary on popular culture, its obsession with fame, and people who are famous just for being famous. The timing is coincidental but arguably fortunate in light of this past week's highly-publicized New York City encounter between Alec Baldwin and a photographer.
And then there's Baldwin's John, a successful commercial architect who once lived in Rome. When he attempts to find his old stomping grounds, he runs into Jesse Eisenberg's Jack, a young architect who's clearly supposed to be a younger version of John. Jack takes John back to his apartment and introduces him to his girlfriend (played by Greta Gerwig), who reminds Jack that her actress friend, Monica (Ellen Page), is coming to town, having just broken up with her boyfriend. John tries to warn Jack about Monica - it's everything John would've said to himself had he gone back in time to prevent his own personal heartbreak. Inexplicable time travel worked in "Midnight In Paris." Not so much here.
Baldwin garners "To Rome with Love's" film's biggest laughs. Allen, one of my favorite writer/director/actors, isn't as impressive. He's committed to his on-screen role but his trademark over-the-top neuroses are actually a distraction, making Allen seem a caricature of himself. As for the film overall, too many themes and too many non-linear stories make "To Rome with Love" feel a bit disconcerting. If those stories had a connection other than taking place in Rome, I missed it.
Two-and-a-half out of five stars.