By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
With numerous storylines that range from the gently farcical to the satirically absurd, writer/director Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love” is guaranteed to have something on its menu for every taste. Not all of it works; a young Italian/American couple displays no believable chemistry, and a pair of plots about the rejection and pursuit of fame have only the loosest connection to the movie’s romance theme. But with this many genuinely funny strands thrown against the wall, most of the schtick is good enough to stick.
Although several stories are interwoven throughout nearly two hours, there are no Valentine’s Day/New Year’s Eve-style crossovers or coincidental connections between characters. Segments also take place over different time periods. A tale about a pair of easily seduced provincial newlyweds unfolds during a single afternoon, while other plots span days or even weeks.
Allen has a role as Jerry, a fidgety music-industry retiree who thinks that his daughter’s fiancé’s father (real-life tenor Fabio Armiliato) has the potential to be a big opera star. The shower-singing mortician’s family feels otherwise, to the point of threatening Jerry with a carving knife, but the former avant-garde opera director won’t be denied. That plot’s unexpected and elaborately staged payoff is preposterously priceless.
The movie’s most inventive segment features Alec Baldwin as John, a visiting architect who simultaneously relives and comments on a disastrous past love affair. His present-day surrogate is self-deluding young architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg, acting almost more like Woody than Woody himself here), who is tempted to stray by his girlfriend’s flakey best friend Monica (Ellen Page). John pops in and out of the action, visible to both Jack and Monica, to dispense amusingly cynical advice that he knows will be ignored.
The sexiest storyline features the stunningly ciao-bella Penelope Cruz as a deliciously direct prostitute who impersonates the wife of a nervous newlywed (Alessandro Tiberi) in front of his prospective employers. Her unforgettable polka-dotted red mini-dress is so tight that looking at it could be grounds for divorce.
That segment is one of two performed entirely in Italian (with subtitles). The other is a surrealistic fable-like tale featuring Roberto Benigni as an everyday office drone who literally becomes “famous for being famous” overnight. The odd storyline is such an awkward fit with the rest of the movie that it may have played better as a separate short subject.
Feminists and armchair analysts could have a field day analyzing what the movie’s female characters say about Allen’s perception of women. Besides boyfriend-poaching narcissist Monica and earthy hooker Anna, the cast also includes a dumb blond fiancée (Alison Pill), Jack’s cluelessly naive girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig), indiscriminately unfaithful new bride Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) and Jerry’s unsupportive and undercutting wife Phyllis (Judy Davis). That’s in addition to several extremely willing sex objects who service a celebrity whose wife understands she must share him with others.
Funny may trump Freud, but that much sexist subtext is a little hard to ignore.