Continuing on his string of film titles themed around a European city (Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris), To Rome With Love (not to be confused with the short-lived 1969-1971 TV series) is another indication of Woody Allen's ability to completely enmesh himself in the culture and lifestyle of a place. His knack for absorption is not, however, entirely on point for this interweaving tale of love, miscommunication, and lost possibility.
As the film begins, Allen focuses in on a traffic director in one of the piazzas as he directs cars and motorcycles in the stylized manner that only an Italian could bring to the job. Pausing after creating an accident to talk to us, he claims that he sees everything that goes on in the city from his vantage point. It is then that we zero in on the first story of To Rome With Love, that of visiting New Yorker Hayley (Alison Pill, best known to me as Lindsay Lohan's co-star in Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen) and Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti).
When the whirlwind of their romance carries well into the summer, Hayley invites her parents, Phyllis (Judy Davis), and Jerry (Woody Allen) to the city. Jerry is automatically wary of Michelangelo and his family before even landing, insisting that they have to be communists. Upon meeting Michelangelo's father, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), however, Jerry's old training as an opera director (though now retired) kicks in when he hears Giancarlo singing in the shower. As a practicing psychiatrist, Phyllis immediately finds ways to interpret this as Jerry's way of trying to avoid death (an entity he associates vehemently with not working).
In the meantime, there is the story of John (Alec Baldwin, who is difficult enough to take seriously in America, let alone walking the cobble-stoned streets of Rome), an architect on vacation who casually attempts to revisit his youth by trying to find his old street, instead happening upon an admirer and architect student named Jack (Jesse Eisenberg). As the two get to talking, Jack discovers that John used to live on the same street that he lives on now. When Jack asks if he wants him to take John there, John replies, "I don't know if I should revisit it." It is then that line between fantasy and reality blurs as John turns into something of an imaginary sensei to Jack, who introduces John to his live-in girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig).
Sally then tells Jack that her friend, Monica (Ellen Page), a failing actress who recently broke up with her boyfriend, is coming to town and that she promised her she could stay with them. Sally then casually adds that most men tend to fall in love with her after seeing her raw sexual energy up close and personal. John, now in figment of imagination mode, cautions, "Can't you see that this situation is fraught with peril?" Jack remains unfazed, even after going with Sally to pick Monica up at the airport. But, predictably, as enough time goes on, Jack finds himself enchanted by her--in spite of John's insistence that everything about her is an artifice; she knows just enough about different subjects to seem intelligent.
Perhaps the most humorous vignette of To Rome With Love centers around married couple Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) and Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and the unlikely involvement of a prostitute named Anna (Penelope Cruz) in the course of their first day in Rome. Antonio, who is diligently hoping to gain a position within his wealthy uncles' company, nervously frets in the hotel room before their arrival, while Milly insists on going to get her hair done so she doesn't look so much like a quaint schoolteacher. Ultimately being told a thousand pieces of contradictory information regarding directions (a staple of Italianism, in addition to using random landmarks to tell people where something is), Milly finds herself hopelessly lost and then drops her cell phone into a gutter as Antonio tries to call her. As Antonio's panic reaches new heights, he answers a knock on the door to find Anna, clearly mistaking him for someone else as she tells him he's won the bet and that everything is paid for. It is at this moment that Antonio's uncles and their wives choose to barge into the room.
Caught literally with his pants down, Antonio is forced to go along with the lie that Anna is his wife, who they've luckily never met before. As they go downstairs to wait for Antonio and "Milly," Antonio begs Anna to pretend to be his wife just for the day. With a sigh, Anna agrees and the two join Antonio's relatives in the lobby. Looking her up and down in disgust, Antonio's aunt suggests that Anna might change as they've arranged a private tour of the Vatican. Anna lies and says the train lost her luggage. With that, they head to the Vatican.
By far the most tragicomic plot of the film is Leopoldo Pisanello (Roberto Benigni), a man who randomly becomes famous one day simply because the paparazzi make it their whim to follow him everywhere and interview him. Asking him basic questions about his life every five minutes, Leopoldo is driven to near madness by the insanity of it, but then, once the press starts to follow another everyman, is driven just as crazy by their lack of invasiveness. As Leopoldo's former chauffeur tells him, "Life can be cruel and unsatisfying whether you're famous or poor and unknown. But, between the two, it is better to be famous."
Although Allen delivers on more than one occasion for laugh out loud moments, poignant philosophical revelations and incredibly shot scenery of Rome, there is something decidedly missing from To Rome With Love. It's almost likenable to a Neapolitan making pasta with canned sauce: You can tell there's something not quite right about it. But, at least Allen will always be able to garner the funding to put together an ensemble cast that provides enough eye candy and box office draw to keep him directing well into his 90s.