When you’re stumped over what to order at an Italian restaurant, you can always fall back on the antipasto plate; a little meat, a little cheese, some salad — nothing too fancy or complicated, but it’s a satisfying mix of this and that.
“To Rome with Love,” Woody Allen’s 43rd outing as writer-director, plays like an antipasto of his latter-day career. Mixing together a helping of neurotic romance, a side of fanciful absurdism, all drizzled in sparkling travelogue, the results don’t rank with his greatest triumphs, but there are enough laughs and watchable performances to make it all go down easy. It’s no “Midnight in Paris” or “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” to be sure, but it’s leagues above “Scoop” and “Whatever Works.”
Structured like the comedic anthologies of the 1960s, or a Neil Simon movie with “Suite” in the title, “To Rome with Love” jumps back and forth between several non-interconnected storylines. Retired music producer Jerry (Allen) and his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis, underutilized) travel to the Eternal City to meet the fiancé of their daughter (Alison Pill); Jerry discovers that his prospective son-in-law’s father has an extraordinary voice for opera — but only under very specific circumstances.
Elsewhere, salary man Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni, dialing it down for once) wakes up to discover that he has, for no apparent reason, become a huge celebrity, with TV reporters wanting to know what he ate for breakfast while starlets throw themselves at him. Honeymooners Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) face temptation from, respectively, a prostitute (Penélope Cruz) and a movie star (Antonio Albanese).
In the most traditionally Allen-esque subplot, renowned architect John (Alec Baldwin) revisits his old digs and becomes enmeshed in the love life of student Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), torn between his stable girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and her volatile actress pal Monica (Ellen Page). And let’s face it: From the moment that Eisenberg first became a film actor, it was always a question of when, not if, he was going to appear in a Woody Allen movie.
The reveal of the central gag of the opera portion is too good to give away; suffice it to say that it — as well as the Benigni section — traffic in the kind of quasi-surrealism that Allen has employed throughout his career, from his hilarious short story “The Kugelmass Episode” to the giant roaming breast in “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex” to the looming, smothering mother in the “Oedipus Rex” section of “New York Stories.” (Baldwin’s is-he-there-or-isn’t-he presence calls to mind the Humphrey Bogart character in Allen’s play and screenplay “Play It Again, Sam” as well.)
What makes “To Rome with Love” feel like little more than a pleasant diversion is the fact that none of these tales would have merited a movie on their own, and strung together they still don’t really add up to much. Allen gets in some good digs at celebrity culture with the Benigni storyline, but the ultimate message there is little more than “Life sucks either way; at least if you’re famous you get sex and free stuff.”
As for the Eisenberg love triangle, it follows the love-trumps-logic formula that’s been a calling card of this auteur for decades. (And after almost 50 years behind the camera, it doesn’t appear that Allen has much more to say on the subject than “the heart wants what it wants.”)
Still, the director has assembled a top-notch cast (himself included) who have a great time with the material, even if it occasionally feels like Page has adopted that eerie faux-Woody stammer that has made its way into actors like Kenneth Branagh, Will Ferrell and John Cusack during their collaborations with him. It’s worth noting that this is the first of Allen’s movies in which nearly half of the dialogue seems to be in a language other than English, but the Italian performers come off as well as their American and Australian counterparts. Monica Nappo, as the opera singer’s wife, gets one of the film’s biggest laughs with her reaction shot after hearing that Phyllis is a psychiatrist.
Woody Allen is one of those filmmakers, as the saying goes, whose second-rate stuff nonetheless outshines many other artists’ top-drawer material. And there are certainly worse ways to spend a summer day than getting a robust amount of laughs while sightseeing through one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Sneak in your own vino rosso.