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To Rome with Love: same characters, different place

Robert Benigni plays Leopoldo, an office worker who becomes briefly famous, in a scene from "To Rome With Love."

Philippe Antonello/AP

2.5 out of 4 stars

To Rome with Love
Written by
Woody Allen
Directed by
Woody Allen
Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz and Roberto Benigni

Our years are marked by familiar milestones – another birthday, another Thanksgiving, another Woody Allen movie. The bird was a little dry last year and you gave me those socks two years ago, and didn't we already see the Allen movie about the vivacious prostitute and the blocked artist who's contemplating infidelity? To Rome with Love is the latest in Allen's recent cycle of European movies, after Barcelona, London and his hit of last year, Midnight in Paris. The current postcard from abroad is not great, but not grating.

Allen's latest mixes the surreal and the real with an off-handedness that goes down easily and he has the benefit of what should be an anti-boredom narrative device: We get four interspliced but unconnected stories in one movie, each resembling one of his short stories. Not only are they unrelated in theme or action, they take place in different time frames.

The thread that works the best features Allen himself, with a welcome return to the screen for the first time since Scoop in 2005, now that he's given up playing leading men, it's a return welcome.

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At 76, Allen's movements are a little more puppet-like but when it comes to delivering one of his trademark lines, he's still the maestro: "I was never Communist. I – (brief fake throat clearing hesitation) – could never share a bathroom."

Allen plays Jerry, a retired music impresario, with Judy Davis as his acerbic straight-woman psychiatrist wife, with the de rigueur Freud references. They've come to Rome to see his daughter (Alison Pill) who has fallen in love with the left-wing lawyer son (Flavio Parenti) of an undertaker, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato).

Giancarlo, apart from providing Allen's character with a long queasy reaction-take when he arrives straight from the shop and pumps his hand in a greeting, provides the film's best conceit. When in the shower, the man sings in a beautiful tenor, which excites the impresario's interest. The trouble is, the undertaker can only sing well in the shower, and Allen's attempts to build a career for the man while accommodating his peccadillo provides the best visual gags of the film.

The second best story stars Alec Baldwin as John, an architect returning to the Trastevere neighborhood where he lived 30 years before. After meeting an architecture student, Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), he accompanies him back to his apartment and meets his girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and learns about the upcoming arrival of Monica (Ellen Page), an actress known for her seductive prowess.

Somehow, John becomes Jack's invisible adviser (like Bogart in Play It Again Sam), warning him against the pitfalls of the self-absorbed Monica. The cast here is much better than the material, but Baldwin is in sardonic form, and it is absorbing listening to intelligent young actors like Page and Eisenberg finding line readings to make Allen's familiar language sound new.

Allen's two Italian forays are not so funny. The already stale themes of Celebrity get rehashed in the segment about a menial office worker ( Life Is Beautiful's Roberto Benigni) who inexplicably becomes briefly famous, hounded by TV journalists who want to know every detail of his day, and trailed by sexy models who throw themselves at him, before becoming a nobody again.

The laziest thread follows a couple of provincial newlyweds and their misadventures in the big city. Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) arrive in Rome looking to start a new future.

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When Milly leaves the hotel for a hair-do, Antonio finds himself caught with a rambunctious prostitute (Penélope Cruz) who mistakes him for a customer, and is subsequently mistaken by Antonio's parents for his new bride. The entire sequence feels like little more than an excuse to get Cruz, voluptuous with her post-baby weight, in a push-up bra.

The world can thank Woody Allen for making it impossible to hear the phrase "the meaninglessness of existence" without imagining an accompanying rimshot but even he must recognize that some experiences are more meaningless than others.

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