To Rome With Love
Directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis  
Rated R for some sexual references  
1 hr. 41 mins.

In To Rome With Love, the latest stop on Woody Allen’s prolonged European vacation, there’s a recurring reference to “Ozymandias melancholia,” a made-up condition in which being among the ruins of a fallen empire triggers a deep sense of loss and depression. Sour critics will take the opportunity to appropriate the phrase as a metaphor for Allen’s late career: Once a pillar of effortless genius, he’s crumbled into a broken relic. To behold his decrepit state, they’ll say, is to mourn the glory of the past.

Well, screw them. Like Bob Dylan, who accomplished so much by 1975 that he’s taken to croaking Christmas carols in his old age, Allen doesn’t owe anyone another masterpiece. It’s a good thing, too, because a masterpiece To Rome With Love is not. It’s not even one of the charming trifles he putters onto every couple of years. Interweaving four stories linked only by setting and loose themes of celebrity and adultery, it’s like Allen emptied his notebook of a few half-conceived ideas, then used them to fund a Roman holiday. So what, though? If Woody wants to spend his golden years making movies purely as an excuse to visit the world’s greatest cities, he’s earned the right. At age 76, with 42 features to his name and an above-.500 batting average, what else does he have to prove?

The answer, of course, is nothing. So when Allen tosses off a film that indeed proves nothing of consequence, it’s hardly worth despairing. Make no mistake, To Rome With Love is terribly uninspired. A sense of place has invigorated the director’s recent successes. In Midnight in Paris, the City of Light clearly inflamed Allen’s muse. He opened the film with the same montage of location photography he lavished upon his beloved New York in Manhattan, and came away with his most joyful (and popular) movie in ages. Despite the affectionate title, he doesn’t seem nearly as enamored with the Eternal City. None of the crosscutting vignettes — which jerk the film uncomfortably from farce to fantasy — have much to say about Rome itself, or an outsider’s experience of being in Rome. Although sumptuously photographed by cinematographer Darius Khondji, the city is simply a background, a mere set piece, and no matter how many shots of the Trevi Fountain, can enliven the movie’s tepid air.

But the film still has its moments, and most of them belong to Allen. He employs not one but three of the classic “Woody Allen avatars”: Jesse Eisenberg as a young American architect in love, against his better judgment, with his girlfriend’s namedropping, pseudo-intellectual BFF (Ellen Page); Roberto Benigni as an Italian everyman who suddenly and inexplicably becomes the subject of intense media fascination; and Alessandro Tiberi as a newlywed who, through a comedy of unexplained errors, convinces his family he’s married to a prostitute (Penelope Cruz, barely contained in a skintight red dress). But Allen out-Woodys them all as an unhappily retired opera director, who’s introduced throwing a nervous fit over airplane turbulence and worrying about his daughter (Alison Pill) potentially marrying a communist. (“I couldn’t even share a toilet!”) It’s a performance so hyper-neurotic it borders on self-parody, and that just might be the intent. His wife (Judy Davis) needles him constantly about his inability to let go of his career, and it sounds a lot like the critics who’d rather have Allen lock the camera away than sully his legacy with subpar efforts. His story, in which he discovers a mortician with the voice of Caruso, culminates in a hackneyed sight gag, but it helps explain the impulse that compels Allen, after almost a half-century, to continue working: It’s better to stage Pagliacci in a public shower than quietly submit to age.