Friday July 6, 2012

Unfortunately, Woody Allen's "To Rome with Love" lives up -- or rather, lives down -- to the superficial postcard sentiment of its title.

Weaving four stories of Italians and American visitors, the writer-director creates a lot of clever moments with his ensemble comedy that features Allen's first on-screen appearance since 2006's "Scoop." In between the good times, the story and characters just drift about awkwardly, stuck on a walking tour of Rome that continually bumps up against dead ends, or worse, circles back so we wind up seeing the same things a few times too many.

It's hard to even pick out a highlight among the four stories. Parts of each story work quite well, while other portions just weigh the scenarios down.

The film almost comes down to how well the actors inhabit their roles. Allen's known for giving his cast plenty of leeway. That's often resulted in Aca demy Award performances, and just as often has left Allen's stars nervously milling around.

There are no Oscar pro spects on screen in "To Rome with Love," but Alec Baldwin conveys a sense of wistful nostalgia as an architect seemingly strolling into his own memories of Italy in his youth.

Baldwin's a wry, omniscient commentator wafting in and out of a love triangle involving Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), Sally (Greta Gerwig) and her seductive pal Monica (Ellen Page). Gerwig's sadly cast as a flavorless third wheel, but Eisenberg and Page are so tentative and cold in their supposedly impetuous fling that they seem like neutered pups.

Roberto Benigni manages a few laughs as a dreary but contented family man hurled into notoriety after Rome's press and paparazzi inexplicably choose him as a person of interest, shadowing him like an A-lister and hanging on his every word about what he had for breakfast. It's a lightweight commentary on fleeting fame, and the gimmick quickly wears thin.

The weakest of the stories centers on naive newlyweds Antonio and Milly (Alessan dro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi), who come to Rome for a fresh start but end up separated and tossed into romantic misadventures with others. Antonio winds up with a bombshell hooker (Penelope Cruz), Milly with an Italian movie star (Antonio Albanese).

Allen co-stars as retired music producer Jerry, who comes to Rome with his wife, Phyllis (Judy Davis) to meet the Italian fiance of their daughter, Hayley (Alison Pill).

After Jerry hears the sublime opera vocals of Hayley's future father-in-law, Giancarlo (Italian tenor Fabio Armili ato) from the shower, he's de termined to make the humble undertaker into a star. Gian carlo insists he sings only for personal pleasure, and when he auditions at Jerry's insistence, he discovers that his talent fails him outside the shower.

You can guess the rest. Allen shows enough restraint and gives the sequences enough diversity that they remain consistently funny.

The time away from the screen hasn't helped Allen's acting chops. He's curiously listless as Jerry, and Davis rarely rises above dreary hen-pecking as his wife.

The ineffable magic that made "Midnight in Paris" click eludes Allen here. When in Paris, Allen's gimmicks coalesced into a sly, engaging romantic fantasy.

When in Rome, though, it's not Nero who's fiddling, but Allen.

"To Rome with Love" is rated R for some sexual references.