In the titular city of Woody Allen’s new film To Rome With Love, four parallel stories do not intersect over a lazy, eventful summer. Whether too vaguely or too pointedly, each of the stories has something to do with the higher classes rudely intersecting with the lower, and the message, by and large, is that people should stay in their place — the social classes are divided the way they are for a good reason. It’s perhaps the worldview of a comfortably successful auteur on autopilot, but it isn’t the satirical point that Woody Allen would like it to be. To Rome with Love is too caught up in its own cleverness and gags to emerge with even the sheen of social critique it aims for.
Allen himself is at on the periphery of one story, as well as the catalyst for it. He plays Jerry, a retired avant-garde opera director who finds that a humble Roman mortician has the voice of a Caruso, but only when he’s in the shower. At the indignant protestation of the mortician’s communist-attorney son, who is engaged to Jerry’s daughter, Jerry puts the mortician up on a stage rigged so that the man can sing the only way he knows how: while bathing. He looks ridiculous, but becomes a big hit. Thus, a proudly working class man is cajoled into embarrassing himself in exchange for fame, or at least for someone else’s idea of success in life.
The idea is repeated in a second story, involving a low-level accountant played by Roberto Benigni who wakes up one morning to find himself inexplicably famous, hounded by flocks of paparazzi (they’re in Italy, after all). He’s subjected to baffling television interviews, quizzed on the most banal aspects of his daily life as if they were important government policy, begins dating models two and three at a time, and is eventually driven to a slapstick form of exhaustion by the whole ordeal. His guardian angel chauffeur advises him that what he’s become — famous for being famous — is better than being nobody.
Elsewhere, a rural Italian couple arrive in Rome and shack up in a ritzy hotel where they expect to meet with the husband’s uncles who work for a high-powered corporation and have promised him a job. The self-conscious wife runs out to get her hair done but gets lost and winds up the object of a tubby movie star’s smarmy advances, while the husband, left fretting in the hotel room, winds up involved in a series of unfortunate comic coincidences that force him to convince his relatives that a beautiful high-class hooker (Penélope Cruz) is actually his wife. The rural couple’s adventures intersect at key points as each learns a thing or two about the fast-paced, sexually advanced, high life in Rome, after which they decide it’s best to go back to being humble in the country.
Finally, a young American architect living a pleasant life in Rome with his lovely, devoted girlfriend meets an older, highly successful architect by chance. He invites the older man back to his apartment for coffee, where he finds out that his girlfriend’s irresistible best friend, a struggling Hollywood actress, is coming to stay with them. Over the course of a few weeks, the young architect falls for the deviously flirty actress and winds up plotting a breakup with his girlfriend. With echoes of Benigni’s guardian-chauffeur, the older architect pops up again and again to offer the younger man advice on why he should choose the stability of the girlfriend over the charms of the actress. The young architect falls for her anyway, but is left in the dust when a big Hollywood part comes through for her just as they were about to sail away.
The four stories reflect on each other very obviously, as is Allen’s intention — but they don’t necessarily deepen or reflect on each other. In fortunate contrast to the most obvious antecedent in Allen’s body of work, 1998’s Celebrity, which followed one character through a series of thematically-related but discrete stories, not every male actor in the new film is doing a Woody Allen impression. Yet Allen more than makes up for this by performing as his neurotic, cynical persona in every scene he’s in. The famous faces in the cast — who also include Jesse Eisenberg (the young architect), Alec Baldwin (the older one), Greta Gerwig (the devoted girlfriend), Ellen Page (the actress), Judy Davis (Allen’s sardonic wife) and Alison Pill (Allen’s daughter, betrothed to the communist lawyer) — all look suspiciously like they’re having a lot of fun on a vacation in Rome while slipping a Woody Allen movie credit into their belts. Allen mixes narrative styles that would have been daring back in the 30s (characters breaking scene to acknowledge the script’s constructs, a free-floating, malleable sense of narrative time) with his usual pretty pictures, unadventurous camera, and on-the-nose cutting, but there’s not much to To Rome with Love beyond a few slivers of social commentary and the light misogyny that casually flows from Woody Allen’s pen. On the whole, he’s made another tribute to a gorgeous European city that feels exactly like Woody Allen on autopilot, and he doesn’t make a single joke you can’t see coming at least two scenes in advance.
Allen seems to get a kick out of broaching topics that are of major personal importance to many people — love, class, the fear of failure — but then he stuffs them under his gags, dresses them up to obfuscate them. As the director ages, he seems much less willing to commit to serious movies (and comedies can be very serious) than he did in his prime, when he took his most serious plunges into real themes (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Zelig). To Rome with Love seems above all to be a dressed-up justification of Allen’s own placidity.