Woody Allen's erratic romantic comedy "To Rome With Love" covers familiar Allen territory: intertwined stories dealing with the folly of romance, the pursuit of dreams and the fleeting nature of fame and life, all neatly packaged with a touch of whimsy and a bit of magical realism.
Here comes a movie whose very title recalls "Midnight in Paris," but it sorely lacks the real magic that made the former the most profitable project Allen has ever made.
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"To Rome With Love"★ ★ ˝
Starring: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Penélope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg, Judy Davis, Roberto Benigni, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page
Directed by: Woody Allen
Other: A Sony Pictures Classics release. Rated R for sexual references. 112 minutes
Allen, in his first on-screen role in six years, plays Jerry, retired from the world of opera. He and his wife (a testy Judy Davis) fly to Rome to meet their daughter (Alison Pill) and her fiance, a pro-union lad named Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), son of a local undertaker, Giancarlo (singer Fabio Armiliato).
Jerry gets excited when he hears Giancarlo singing superb opera in the shower. Jerry knows he can get the mortician stage work. Except for one detail: Giancarlo can only sing well while physically in the shower.
As Jerry attempts to solve this problem (with chuckle-worthy results in a cautionary tale about dream fulfillment), three other stories of varying impact unfold.
A newlywed Italian couple Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) become separated when she steps out of their hotel for a moment, loses her cellphone, loses her way back and falls in with a lecherous movie star (Antonio Albanese).
Back at the hotel, a devil of a hooker in a red dress (Penélope Cruz) mistakenly knocks on the couple's door and puts the moves on a surprised Antonio just as his snooty relatives show up to meet his new bride, whom they assume to be the hooker.
Allen leans toward a hedonistic view of life here, especially when adventuresome Milly decides to bed a conveniently sexy burglar who shows up. "It's better to sleep with him and regret it," she says, "than to not sleep with him and regret it!"
Across the city, the flimsiest, most belabored tale tells of a boring civil clerk (Roberto Benigni) who suddenly becomes a target for a pack of media hounds anxious to report on every aspect of his life. He is perturbed by his inexplicable sudden fame. Yet, once without it, he lapses into hopeless overacting.
Finally, in the movie's strongest set, a middle-aged American named John (Alec Baldwin) reminisces about his brief residence in Rome as a young man, only to meet up with Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who could be John from 30 years ago. John instantly takes Jack under his wing, offering up sagely advice on how to handle women, desires and life.
John advises Jack to stay with his girlfriend Sally (an underwhelming Greta Gerwig) and not be sidetracked by her strangely sexually alluring friend Monica ("Juno" star Ellen Page), who may just be one of Allen's perpetual targets: a faux intellectual. Jack doesn't listen to John, of course, because in the Allen universe, the heart (and other body organs) always trumps the brain.
"To Rome With Love," partially equipped with a vintage 1960s score, began as a project called "Bop Decameron," then "Nero Fiddled" until Allen fiddled with the title more and it came out sounding like a sequel to his Oscar-winning "Midnight in Paris," a far wittier and more consistent ensemble effort.
"To Rome With Love" has only one outrageous element: its R rating for "sexual references."
Allen's core demographic hardly depends upon the under-17 crowd being able to see his movies, so the economic incentive to fight for a less-restrictive PG-13 doesn't really apply here.
Still, an R rating suggests that the saucy "To Rome With Love" possesses much more spice than "Midnight in Paris." So maybe it packs marginally more spice and a fleeting F-bomb being dropped on the soundtrack.
For Allen's affectionate, ensemble valentine to Rome to receive the same rating as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Basic Instinct" points to a fundamental unfairness in the criteria used by the Classification and Ratings Administration.
Note: "To Rome With Love" opens at the River East and Century Centre in Chicago, the Renaissance Place in Highland Park, and the Evanston CineArts 6. It will open wide in the suburbs Friday, July 6.