Alessandro Tiberi, left, Roberto Della Casa and Penélope Cruz in… (Philippe Antonello / Sony…)
Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love" is an affectionate but meandering comedy that contemplates romance, fame, legacy and longing. It comes with much of the lightness and love for one of Europe's great cities that made last year's "Midnight in Paris" so charming but little of the intellectual and emotional rigor that ultimately turned that film into something magical.
Like Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi), a young provincial wife who quickly gets turned around in the Italian capital, audiences will be wishing for a map — the better to follow all the competing themes of "To Rome With Love." To accommodate the ebb and flow of ideas, nearly everything about the film is fluid, including what is real and what is imagined.
The cast of characters is a sprawling one, even for a director who favors ensembles, and each role carries a lot of baggage to be psychologically unpacked during this Roman holiday. The official headliners are Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page. There is an equally long list of co-stars, including the fabulous tenor Fabio Armiliato, who should have been among the first group — he certainly steals the show.
Tellingly enough, the film begins in confusion — a traffic jam and a traffic cop who serves as an occasional and unnecessary narrator. Hayley (Alison Pill) is on the sidewalk. She looks the typical college grad from the States, new to the city and lost. Soon enough, she is found, swept up by its charm and one of its Michelangelos (Flavio Parenti). But the couple, quickly engaged, are just a tease. The director is really interested in their parents.
Hayley's dad is Jerry (Allen), a retired opera director, and her mother is Phyllis (Davis), a therapist. In Michelangelo's family, the one to watch is his father, Giancarlo (Armiliato), a mortician. The engagement brings the families together and sets the stage for one of the film's four distinct set pieces — let's call it "The Foibles and Frustrations of Aging," for that is what will be sliced and diced in time.
Before anyone has a chance to settle in, "Rome" shifts to a café and a 50ish architect, John (Baldwin), who soon excuses himself to search for the apartment where he lived years ago when his adult life was just starting out. Let's call this segment "The Follies of Youth, Part 1," for John bumps into Jack (Eisenberg), essentially a younger version of himself. Jack's a budding architect who is clear about his career but conflicted about love. Should he settle for the steady girlfriend, Sally (Gerwig), or her intoxicating best friend, Monica (Page), an actress on-the-cusp who has unexpectedly turned up on their doorstep? John has a few opinions on the matter that he's intent on sharing.
While Jack's love life is twisting in the wind and John is opining, Milly (remember her, the provincial wife?) is caught up in a series of moral crises of her own, including a blushing brush with fame and her matinee idol (Antonio Albanese). Husband Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) gets into a bit of hot water too with the help of a high-end hooker named Anna (Cruz). This segment is all about temptation, ambition and expectations of young marrieds, perhaps "The Follies of Youth, Part 2."
Then there is one of the film's most delightful sections, a non sequitur that turns into a thoroughly entertaining treatise on, well, "The Frivolous and Fleeting Nature of Fame." This excursion, or diversion, centers on a nondescript office worker, Leopoldo, played by Benigni as ebullient as he was in 1999 climbing over seats when "Life Is Beautiful" was named best foreign language film at the Oscars. In "To Rome," he is a family man of absolutely no distinction who finds himself for no apparent reason at the center of a media storm that gives him a taste of the insanity, both sweet and sour — fame for fame's sake.
"To Rome" is a return to acting for Allen, who has not starred in one of his films since 2006's "Scoop," and he's put himself in good company, with everyone easily pulling their weight. Allen's films have always felt autobiographical — a reflection of his intellectual conundrums as often as his personal life. This one feels especially close to home in its story of an aging man trying to remain relevant. As Jerry, he wears every one of his many years in his face, in his fragility, his vulnerability and his impatience.
Since he is the man in charge, the filmmaker gives Jerry his shot at redemption. It involves Giancarlo, who may be a mortician by trade but sings like a virtuoso when he hits the shower at night. In this, Armiliato shows exactly why he's revered in opera circles for both his voice and his charisma.
Here again fame rears its ugly head. Jerry promises it. Giancarlo is intrigued by it. There are issues to contend with, to say nothing of all those other lives playing out on other stages; it can feel a mess. But honestly, any time Giancarlo steps in the shower and starts to sing, for that moment nothing else that is happening in "Rome" matters.