"To Rome With Love" is a film that doesn't deliver on the promise of its title. There is lovely Italian scenery -- at one point the camera does a 360-degree spin around a plaza as if to say, "Isn't Rome spectacular?" -- and lots of stolen kisses. But this is a foggy, verbose film whose jokes are focused on loss and regret.
A middle-aged architect played by Alec Baldwin sums up the film's mood when he announces that he suffers from "Ozymandias melancholia," alluding to the Shelley poem in which a traveler sees a crumbling statue of a once mighty king. The reference touches on his self-importance and the sad realization that nothing made by men can endure forever. Woody Allen's latest film is a reflection on the quixotic, fleeting nature of romance, fame and life itself.
In four individual story lines we meet an older couple (Allen and Judy Davis), their daughter (Alison Pill) and the colorful Italian family she is marrying into; a set of emotionally tangled young adults (Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page) and the tourist who serves as their counselor and critic (Baldwin); a typical Roman office worker (Roberto Benigni), and a top-echelon prostitute (Penélope Cruz).
Baldwin's character takes a sentimental walk along the street where he lived long ago and meets young architecture student Eisenberg (who may be Baldwin's memory of himself as a young man). He observes the confusion that ensues when Eisenberg's girlfriend (Gerwig) invites her actress pal (Page) to share their apartment.
Smitten, Eisenberg rationalizes his attraction to the newcomer, and it's easy to understand. Page is persuasive as one of Allen's intellectually pretentious vixens, and her every closeup is heart-melting. Baldwin steps into the frame like Marshall McLuhan in "Annie Hall," warning Eisenberg he's about to "walk into [a] propeller."
There are illicit affairs in the Benigni and Cruz subplots, too. He plays a dull family man inexplicably swept up in paparazzi culture, swarmed by journalists who want every detail of his daily routine. He's given a limousine and chauffeur, invited to film premieres and eyed by eager groupies. His driver advises him not to question his good luck, but simply enjoy being "famous for being famous."
Cruz plays a sexpot escort who arrives in the hotel room of a visiting country mouse (Alessandro Tiberi), who tries to pass her off as his wife while he meets relatives and business contacts in Rome. Squeezed into a lipstick-red miniskirt, she tosses off racy jokes in the Sistine Chapel and gives the timid rube's ego mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Allen's story line casts him as a classical music producer chafing in retirement. His daughter has fallen for the son of a Roman undertaker who sings like a second Caruso in the shower. Only in the shower. Allen becomes the man's manager, pushing him onstage to revive his own dormant career.
In each story, coincidence or magic gives a character a taste of capricious celebrity or fantasy-world sex. The same sleight-of-hand takes it away not long afterward. Page and Baldwin seize the camera, while most of the other characters flutter past the lens without leaving much impression. Fans of Allen's magnificent earlier work can only look at this effort and feel their own brand of Ozymandias melancholia.