By STEVE PERSALL
Times Movie Critic
Woody Allen's European comeback tour continues in To Rome With Love, after checking London, Barcelona and an Oscar-winning stop in Paris off the list. For the first time, the 76-year-old filmmaker's creative jet lag is showing.
To Rome With Love glides though the piazzas and terraces of the Eternal City, a gorgeous setting for what is essentially warmed-over Woody. A quartet of unrelated stories focus on familiar themes of romance and celebrity plumbed before. It's a clashing assortment of signature styles, as if Allen emptied his notebook and hastily crumpled thin ideas into a script.
There's the early Allen slapstick in Roberto Benigni's role as a dull nobody who awakens one day to find paparazzi stalking him; the cerebrally absurd Woody in the tale of a mortician (Fabio Armiliato) whose soaring tenor in the shower leads to the strangest staging of Il Pagliaccio ever. Allen plays the recording executive discovering him, and he looks tired.
Another saucy prostitute in a Woody Allen movie (Penélope Cruz) mistakes a timid newlywed (Alessandro Tiberi) for a customer while his wife is being seduced by a famous Italian actor. The fourth arc swaps the celebrity theme for surreal farce, with Alec Baldwin's architect on holiday either reliving a Roman romantic mistake through a student (Jesse Eisenberg), or playing the young man's conscience whom others occasionally see and speak with.
Benigni's segments are funniest, although the moral to his story isn't news to anyone. Addictive fame strikes instantaneously in the reality TV era and disappears just as fast. But Benigni's loose-limbed physicality makes him a walking sight gag, and befuddlement is his strong suit. On the DVD, those are the chapters I'd search for, and maybe the Cruz sightings.
The rest are hit-and-miss propositions with occasional flashes of wit, and a few standout performances. It's always good to see Judy Davis exchanging barbs with Allen, like when he boasts of having an IQ of 160: "You're figuring in euros. In dollars it's much less." Baldwin can be counted upon for dry remarks and impeccable timing, while in the same segment Ellen Page (Juno) forms the words of Allen's overripe dialogue but can't convey the feelings they suggest.
To Rome With Love is a modest letdown after Midnight in Paris and Vicky Christina Barcelona proved that Allen can still deliver sophisticated comedy from overseas. Next stop is San Francisco, for an as-yet-untitled 2013 release. Hopefully he'll bring back some surprises from his working vacation.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org.