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Movie Review: 'To Rome With Love'

Woody Allen is at his funniest as triumphant European tour continues

Director: Woody Allen
Rating R. Running Time: 102 minutes
Stars: Woody Allen, Penelope Cruz, Alec Baldwin, Judy Davis

Español | Woody Allen's new comedy may be as close as we're ever going to get to reliving his flat-out funny 1970s era, and we should celebrate it as such. In fact, the last 15 minutes of To Rome With Love approach levels of absurdist Allenesque hilarity we haven't seen since Sleeper, in 1973.

See also: Johnny Depp as Rango.

Left to Right: Alessandro Tiberi as Antonio, Roberto Della Casa as Uncle Paolo and Penélope Cruz as Anna

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Alessandro Tiberi, Roberto Della Casa and Penélope Cruz in "To Rome With Love."

In To Rome With Love we get four Woody Allen movies for the price of one: four stories told simultaneously.

One chapter involves a young American architect (Jesse Eisenberg) whose live-in girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) invites a flighty, seductive friend (Juno's Ellen Page) to stay with them. Of course, the setup is fraught with tension, and the hapless guy finds himself torn between the safe girl he loves and the dangerous one who keeps coming on to him. He gets lots of cautionary advice (ignoring most of it) from Alec Baldwin, who appears as a surreal, ever-present confidante — an echo of Allen's long-ago visits from Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam.

We also meet a pair of newlyweds from the country (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) arriving in Rome for the first time. He's there to meet some rich relatives who will in turn introduce him to a businessman who could hire him for a big job. But through a mixup, everyone mistakes a high-class prostitute (Penelope Cruz) for his wife, and he has no choice but to let them go on thinking that.

Elsewhere in Rome, a middle-class clerk (Roberto Benigni) walks out his front door one day to find a swarm of TV cameras and microphones aiming at him, and reporters barking out questions asking what he had for breakfast and how he shaved. In the streets, everybody knows him, and beautiful women throw themselves at him. Soon enough, even before Allen tells us, we understand it's all a satire on modern celebrity — fame of the Paris Hilton-Bachelorette ilk — in which, as someone eventually explains, people become famous for being famous.

Finally, there's the story of Jerry, a retired U.S. opera producer (Allen), who has come to Rome with his wife (Judy Davis) to meet the man their daughter (Alison Pill) wants to marry. While visiting the guy's family, Jerry gets an earful of the fiance's father (Fabio Armiliato, one of Italy's premier tenors) singing in the shower — and becomes convinced he has discovered the next Caruso.

If you reread those previous paragraphs, you'll realize that in his four stories Allen has written four vintage Woody Allen roles, each representing a stage in his nearly 50-year movie career. In each tale, characters yearn for something different in their lives, get it and then face the consequences, for good or ill. It's just the kind of reflective work we've grown to expect from 76-year-old Allen. The difference here is he's accomplishing it with uncommon good humor from start to finish.

Left to Right: Alec Baldwin as John and Jesse Eisenberg as Jack in Woody Allen's To Rome With Love

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Alec Baldwin as John and Jesse Eisenberg as Jack in Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love."

As usual for an Allen comedy, the women are thoughtful and knowing; the men are a mess, but they get the best lines. (Marveling at how wonderful Armiliato's character sounds in the shower, Jerry observes that even though he himself can't usually sing a note, when he gets into the shower and all soaped up, "I sound like Eartha Kitt!")

All of this is played against the background of the Eternal City, and Iranian-born cinematographer Darius Khondji — as he did in Allen's Midnight in Paris — lavishes the city with all the loving care he would a leading lady. From the Trevi Fountain to the Borghese Gardens, Khondji's Rome is somehow both warm and monumental. I wanted to go straight from the theater to the airport and catch the next Alitalia flight out of town.

Some minor structural problems dog To Rome With Love. While two of the tales could take place within a day or two, the others would require weeks, or even months, to unfold. Yet Allen still cuts back and forth among them, creating some chronological whiplash. And the transitions between fantasy and farce are similarly disorienting. The film might have worked a little better if the stories were told episodically, as in the similarly multistoried Paris Je T'Aime.

But you know what? I'm not about to tell Woody Allen what to do. He remains among our most thoughtful, reliably entertaining filmmakers, and To Rome With Love is a worthy addition to his unmatched film canon.

l-r: Woody Allen, Flavio Parenti and Alison Pill star in To Rome With Love

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Woody Allen, Flavio Parenti, Alison Pill and the city itself star in "To Rome With Love."

More Metropolitan Mash Notes From Woody Allen

Manhattan (1979) Woody Allen's perfect blending of comedy, drama and cinematic art remains his towering achievement. That Gordon Willis did not receive even an Oscar nomination for his black-and-white-and-infinite-shades-of-gray cinematography remains one of the academy's unforgiveable sins. So indelibly did Manhattan  identify Allen with New York City that for decades fans became virtually unable to accept him working in any other setting.

Everyone Says I Love You (1996) Last year's Midnight in Paris celebrated the literary and cultural allure of Paris, but Allen's underappreciated musical fantasy explores the city as the world capital of l'amour. After all, where else but Paris could Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn — singing and dancing on the banks of the Seine — get your romantic juices going?

Match Point (2005) Allen seemed to find new creative energy working in London — this was the first of three films in a row he made there, a snappy, dangerous thriller that would have made Alfred Hitchcock proud. The city's gray skies and colorless architecture make a perfect backdrop for this story of lust, jealousy and cold-blooded murder. That's not exactly something the London tourist office would have in mind, but for Allen, London — with its blood-drenched history lying just below its ever-proper exterior — is just perfect.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) A love triangle involving some very pretty people (Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson and Penélope Cruz) unfolds in one of Europe's loveliest but least-cinematically-explored cities. From the curves of Gaudi's cathedral to the sultry Catalonian countrysideVicky Cristina Barcelona undulates with sensuality.