Woody Allen’s ‘To Rome With Love’ is a charming trifle

The large cast in “To Rome With Love’’ includes (second row, from left): Judy Davis, Woody Allen, Alison Pill, and Flavio Parenti and (below, from left) Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg.
The large cast in “To Rome With Love’’ includes (second row, from left): Judy Davis, Woody Allen, Alison Pill, and Flavio Parenti.
Philippe Antonello/Sony Pictures Classics

If there’s one thing long-time Woody Allen watchers have learned, it’s that he tends to follow his really good films (“Annie Hall,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Match Point”) with curiosities and misfires (“Interiors,” “Alice,” “Scoop”). So as summer invariably turns to autumn and milk inevitably turns sour, last year’s “Midnight in Paris,” the biggest moneymaker of the filmmaker’s career, has led to “To Rome With Love,” a charming but terribly self-indulgent trifle that’s less than the sum of its many parts.

It’s the latest stop on Allen’s combination world tour/Hollywood exile, and the success of “Paris” may have doomed him to moving from one foreign capital to the next. (I eagerly await “Good Morning, Phnom Penh.”) “Rome” opens with cliched shots of the Eternal City and breezy Italiano café music — strictly tour bus stuff — before settling into four unrelated short stories that Allen shuffles and intercuts without much concern for time, place, or believability.

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Two of the stories work and two of them don’t. The best is a fractious romantic comedy in which Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young American living in Rome with his pliant girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig), gets the hots for her visiting friend Monica (Ellen Page), a would-be actress who’s nothing but trouble. In Eisenberg, Allen may have finally found the young Woody he’s always coaching his actors to be, and the mercurial Page may remind you of those fiercely neurotic women — Janet Margolin, Louise Lasser — who appeared in the director’s earliest films.

On hand as Jack’s adviser in matters of the heart and other organs is John, a well-known American architect played with caustic delight by Alec Baldwin. Is John an older version of Jack? Is he even there or just a figment of the characters’ imaginations? It’s never clear and it doesn’t matter, so amusingly does Baldwin bite off his lines and puncture the younger man’s illusions. This section of “To Rome With Love” offers the novel idea that Allen might be best revisiting his usual obsessions (i.e., sex and death) with young casts ready to play.

The rest of the film struggles to come up to that level. A storyline about a pair of newlywed country mice (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) who become separated and fall into the arms of, respectively, a whore (Penelope Cruz) and a preening movie star (Antonio Albanese) gets by on the strength of Mastronardi’s beauty and Cruz’s bawdiness; it’s funny, but, Woody, enough with the hookers. A recurring segment about a mild-mannered civil clerk (Roberto Benigni) who suddenly becomes a tabloid star takes a very good joke about modern celebrity culture and goes nowhere with it, Benigni spritzing away on a completely different wavelength than the filmmaker.

The fourth strand is even more of a mixed bag. It gives us Allen himself in fine whine as Jerry, an American arriving in Rome to see his daughter (Alison Pill) get married to an Italian (Flavio Parenti). Even better, we get Judy Davis as his wife, glowering with bile as if she still hasn’t forgiven him for “Deconstructing Harry.” If Allen’s arguably getting too old for this, he seems to realize it, and he has a few wisecracks that double enjoyably back on himself. (“Don’t psychoanalyze me,” he tells his wife. “Many have tried, all have failed.”)

But those scenes fizzle into silliness: Jerry’s an opera director and his new son-in-law’s father (Fabio Armiliato) is a natural tenor who can only sing in the shower and . . . oh, never mind. “To Rome With Love” feels thrown together, and it disdains the conventions of parallel-action: The newlywed story takes place in one day while the others unfold over several weeks, yet all are intercut so as to appear simultaneous. Is Allen breaking loose artistically or has he just gotten lazy? It’s anyone’s guess.

As bumpy as it is, the movie has a benevolent weariness that’s enticing. Some of the funniest moments are silent close-ups of one character or another trying hard to take in the nonsense she or he has just heard. The phrase “ozymandias melancholia” pops up in two separate contexts; referring to a sort of all-encompassing spiritual malaise, it was last heard in Allen’s “Stardust Memories” way back in 1980. At 76, Allen is getting tired, and can you blame him? Forty-plus movies in about as many years, and he’s still out there, stateless, dithering, drawn to greatness and forever talking himself out of it. “To Rome With Love” is another stalling maneuver, this one more obvious and carefree than most. Come home, Woody. Not all is forgiven, but enough.