Before it evaporates into a big cloud of nothing, To Rome with Love is a piquant and engaging comedy following several disparate storylines, all set in Rome and tinged with a touch of magic realism. Some unfold over the course of a day; others seem to take place over several weeks. An ordinary man (Roberto Benigni) suddenly becomes famous for no reason, his every move hounded by paparazzi. First he’s frightened by celebrity; then he grows to love it.
An architect (Alec Baldwin) walking around his former neighborhood encounters a younger version of himself (Jesse Eisenberg), who is about to commit the same romantic mistakes he once did. A married couple (Woody Allen and Judy Davis) meet their soon-to-be in-laws and discover one of them may be an opera superstar in the making. A pair of newlyweds (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) are separated by circumstance and thrown into a farcical comedy of errors.
The various storylines grow with amusing complications, including Penélope Cruz as a high-class call girl and Ellen Page as a neurotic actress and habitual home wrecker. Through it all, Rome remains at the forefront, ravishingly photographed by the great Darius Khondji ( Seven, Evita), who captures the light and feel of the city in all its modern — and ancient — glory.
To Rome with Love is so inviting, and most of its gaggle of characters so diverse and likable, it’s doubly disappointing that Allen, who wrote and directed the movie, can’t think of what to do with them. Unlike his previous romantic roundelay, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, a tedious collection of tired clichés on marriage and infidelity, To Rome with Love features genuinely amusing characters: I loved Baldwin’s ruefulness as he watches his younger self walking headfirst into romantic propellers. The ensemble cast is strong: Page nails a long, difficult monologue that might have sunk a lesser actress, and Cruz is obviously having a ball as the vivacious hooker, sporting a snug red dress that practically qualifies as a special effect.
The movie is also front-loaded with lots of funny, self-reflective jokes (“Don’t psychoanalyze me,” Allen snaps at Davis. “Many have tried, all have failed.”) But the strain of the director’s self-imposed work ethic of cranking out a movie a year, no matter what, shows. To Rome with Love desperately needed a script polish, as well as an entire third act. The various story strands lead absolutely nowhere — not a one! — and the ending feels rushed and sloppy. The energy seeps out of the picture, and the movie doesn’t end as much as stop. Allen’s attempt to tie the whole thing together with whimsical omniscient narrators feels like a desperate Hail Mary move, as if he were on a deadline to start production by a certain date and couldn’t come up with anything better.