The latest stop on Woody Allen’s postcard tour of the great European capitals is Rome—“the eternal city,” per one character’s dreamy description, “it never changes.” It also never comes to convincing contemporary life onscreen, though it sure looks hermetically pretty—all warm sun, golden piazzas, quaint cafes, and winding cobbled streets. The flippant but fun To Rome With Love braids together four stories that have the Italian metropolis as well as themes of fame and recognition in common, and while two of them involve actual Romans, the setting comes across strictly as a place seen and romanticized by visitors, one in which the Spanish Steps and the Colosseum play major roles, and any vision of a daily routine is conceptual at best.
Rome may not be the obvious pick for a place in which to explore celebrity, but what Allen has in mind is a more figurative look at leaving one’s mark on the world. While none of the vignettes intersect, they’re each concerned with public acknowledgement, with the need to be at least a little exceptional, an idea explored with touches of magical realism ranging from delicate to way past al dente.
The theme is most directly explored in the story of Roberto Benigni, an “average Roman citizen of the middle class” who lives an unremarkable but contented life with his family until one day, without warning or reason, he’s declared famous and paparazzi swarm his house. Reporters want to know what he had for breakfast, red-carpet commentators coo admiringly over a run in his wife’s stocking at a movie première, and models jump in bed with him. He isn’t famous for anything other than being famous, but even life as an unwarranted celebrity wears him down—until the cameras turn away.
Also something of a prolonged one-joke sketch is the thread in which Allen appears as a former avant-garde opera director who travels with his wife (Judy Davis) to Rome to meet up with their daughter (Alison Pill) and her new fiancé (Flavio Parenti). The boy’s mortician father (renowned tenor Fabio Armiliato) turns out to have an amazing untrained voice. Though reluctantly retired, Allen seizes on this opportunity to make the amateur a star and live through his rise, though that’s not so easy when the reluctant singer is only comfortable in the shower, leading to a deadpan staging of Pagliacci in which the star is wheeled around while soaping up in a moveable stall.
Two newlyweds (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) arrive in Rome on their honeymoon planning to start new lives there, only to be quickly separated through farcical circumstances, ending up on unintended dates with a prostitute (Penélope Cruz) and a married movie star (Antonio Albanese). Over the evening, the pair’s insecurities about their new life together are exposed, and while they rack up some impressive experiences, half of the couple ends up ready to retreat home.
The storyline involving Alec Baldwin, as an established architect on vacation in the city, is by far the most rewarding in the film, and it provides substance to what would otherwise be a strenuously whimsical endeavor. On a walk through the neighborhood in which he spent a year when he was younger, Baldwin encounters an architecture student (Jesse Eisenberg) who knows Baldwin’s work and invites him back to the apartment he shares with his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig). Through some bend in reality, Eisenberg turns out to be a possible version of Baldwin, or maybe his former self, and the latter sticks around as an advisor as the former gets involved with Gerwig’s visiting flaky-actress friend (Ellen Page).
Page is self-involved, flirty, and a phony, all things that Baldwin points out to Eisenberg, who’s nevertheless entranced. Baldwin goes mostly unseen by everyone else, but every once in a while, Page speaks up to defend herself from his unflattering assessments. He has the benefit of hindsight and experience, but Eisenberg is young and smitten, drawn in by her carefully self-created glamour, and as the love triangle progresses, Baldwin watches the inevitable happen with a wistful regret that’s also tinged with yearning. Even knowing better, he isn’t certain he wouldn’t do the same thing over again.
The amusing, bittersweet charm of this final storyline is intense enough that it would almost be better off as a stand-alone short; intercut as it is between three other less successful narratives, it’s forced to do some heavy lifting for the film as a whole. But it succeeds in buoying Allen’s latest enterprise up into something that’s palatable overall, if vaguely inauthentic and unsatisfying, like an allegedly local meal bought at a tourist restaurant. With its Italy 101 cultural touchstones—the film begins and ends with “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)”—To Rome With Love seems not so much about the city of its title as about being a sightseer there, tossing a coin into the Trevi Fountain, eating pasta, and thinking about nothing more urgent than when you’ll eventually have to head home.