To Rome With Love, this year's Woody Allen film, is the latest in his European odyssey, after his recent excursions to London (Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra's Dream), Barcelona (Vicky Christina Barcelona), and Paris (Midnight In Paris). After the unexpected success of Midnight In Paris, there were unusually high expectations for To Rome With Love, and the result is certainly above average for a late-period Allen comedy.
The film contains four separate stories, though they have little in common except that they are all set in Rome. The effect is a concise alternative to Paris, Je T'Aime, Sawasdee Bangkok, or New York Stories. The four narratives are intercut, though their timeframes aren't parallel.
In one of the strands, Roberto Benigni plays a clerk who suddenly becomes a 'reality TV' star, chased by paparazzi (first seen in La Dolce Vita, also set in Rome), in a satire on contemporary celebrity culture. There is also a one-joke segment featuring a mortician who performs operas from a shower cubicle. Another story concerns a man who becomes involved with a prostitute (a recurring theme: there were also prostitutes in Allen's Mighty Aphrodite, Deconstructing Harry, and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger).
The most intriguing and ambitious strand stars Alec Baldwin as an architect who meets an architecture student played by Jesse Eisenberg. Baldwin becomes an ever-present mentor to Eisenberg, though he is apparently not visible to other characters. At first, it seems that Allen is repeating the ontological device of Play It Again, Sam, in which an apparition of Sam Spade (from Casablanca) gives relationship advice. However, in this case the trick is reversed: Eisenberg exists only in Baldwin's imagination, as Baldwin is remembering the experiences of his own youth. (This interpretation is suggested by the repeated phrase "ozymandias melancholia", which comes from Allen's Stardust Memories; it recalls Owen Wilson as a back-street time-traveller in Midnight In Paris, and Allen and Diane Keaton as spectators of their memories in Annie Hall.)
The film has an impressive cast, including Penelope Cruz (who also starred in Vicky Christina Barcelona) and Judy Davis (wonderful in Deconstructing Harry). Allen himself makes a welcome return to acting, in his first role since Scoop. In the film's funniest sequence, Allen over-reacts on an aeroplane ("I can't unclench when there's turbulence, I'm an atheist"). He also returns to his favourite themes: death (which he says is a natural consequence of retirement) and analysis ("Don't psychoanalyse me", he insists. "Many have tried, all have failed").
To Rome With Love is enhanced by Allen's schtick and the excellent ensemble cast. Most of the action is rather frivolous, though Baldwin's scenes are more substantial. It's too much to ask for a return to form (more than thirty years after Annie Hall and Manhattan), but this is the next best thing.