Woody Allen rarely laughs, least of all at his own jokes. But in his latest, “To Rome With Love,” in which he acts as well as directs, he breaks down from time to time to suppress a giggle and the movie gets an almost imperceptible lift. If Allen is laughing (kind of) then it’s surely OK for the audience to sit back and relax in this ode to the gorgeous city that has inspired legions of film people — such as Audrey Hepburn, who launched her Hollywood career from the Spanish Steps, and Federico Fellini, who allegedly was a crank everywhere else he filmed except in Rome. (He even made a film about it, “Fellini’s Roma,” in 1972.)
Allen, too, seems more exhilarated to be there than he was in 2006′s “Scoop,” a film that made half-hearted jabs at life in Britain and in which he also appeared. In “Rome,” he pairs up with long-trusted actress Judy Davis (“Husbands and Wives”) as they play American couple Jerry and Phyllis, flying in to meet Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), the fiancé of their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill).
As you’d expect from Allen’s characters (whether they’re New Yorkers or Romans), neither Hayley nor her husband-to-be seem to have a lot of work pressure, or for that matter do any work at all. But they have nice digs and wardrobes to match, and cash to fuel visits to wonderful restaurants.
Jerry, on the other hand, takes his work obsession all the way to Italy. As everyone else immerses themselves in the mangiare, amore thing, Jerry fusses endlessly over his next big project, even though he’s recently retired.
Allen shows himself totally enamoured with the city: He’s certainly much less critical of Rome than his adopted home of London. As in his last film, “Midnight in Paris,” every frame is a tribute to its host city’s historical beauty, and Allen perhaps duplicates a time in his career when a story’s locale holds as much allure for him as his leading ladies (see 1979′s “Manhattan”).
The sentiment is reflected by John (Alec Baldwin), a once brilliant architect now known for designing shopping malls, wandering from one Rome alley to another. John is both wistful and cynical: He had lived in Rome as a young man and now he can’t help trying to catch a fragment of his past, though he knows disappointment may come crashing down like a thunderstorm.
You’ll meet a whole lot more people, too, each vying hard to secure a position in a movie that sometimes comes off like a laden picnic blanket with corners flapping in the wind. Such as Penélope Cruz in a flaming-red dress and heels to match, playing a high-class prostitute. Or the classic Allen-esque object of obsession: a dark-haired, neurotic femme fatale who can quote poet Rainer Maria Rilke but doesn’t know what she’s talking about (played to pitch-perfection by Ellen Page). And Allen’s younger altar-ego is Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), who falls hard for Page’s character, only to be left in the dust by her capriciousness.
At one point Phyllis tells Jerry that his problem is that he “equates retirement with death.” That’s probably exactly how Allen himself feels, and as long as that’s the case, we can look forward to many more movies about cities and depression and relationships. That in itself deserves a standing ovation.