Like clockwork, Woody Allen winds up a film every year, and with each film, we’re left wondering if — Annie Hall and its Oscars notwithstanding — Stardust Memories isn’t the director’s definitive work. In that 1980 feature, the character played by Allen, a filmmaker, is torn between fame and obscurity, and between his hunger to make sombre, “important” films and his audience’s appetite for junk food, which is how he appeared to regard his early comedies. Allen’s contempt for the people who watch (and review) his films was never in fuller bloom than in this much-maligned comedy (or was it really a drama with killer zingers?), patterned after Fellini’s 8 1/2. (It was even shot in black-and-white.)

Watching To Rome With Love, it’s hard not to shake off the feeling that Allen is sneering, yet again, at the ticket-buyers who made such a huge worldwide hit of last year’s Midnight in Paris. “You enjoyed that wafer-thin, one-joke skit? Here’s more,” he seems to be saying. “I’ll even throw in bons mots about Ozymandias and Kierkegaard so you can pat yourself and feel clever as you trickle out of the theatre.”

Early on, the narrator describes the average middle-class Roman — embodied by Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), a mousy clerk who rises every morning at 7 a.m. — as “dependable, agreeable, predictable.” The same things could be said about this film, which is composed of a quartet of unrelated storylines. There’s not a moment of surprise in To Rome With Love — though, as the title suggests, there’s certainly a lot of love. Hayley (Alison Pill), an American tourist in Rome, falls for a local named Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) is in love with Sally (Greta Gerwig), until he meets Monica (Ellen Page), Sally’s best friend and “self-obsessed pseudo-intellectual” (his words).

Newlyweds Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) move to Rome from the provinces, in search of better prospects. And Leopoldo is transformed, overnight, into a celebrity when the media decides, on a whim, to shower love on him, professing rabid curiosity about everything from the breakfast he had to the way he shaves. (Stardust Memories, too, indulged in meditations on celebrity.)

These stories are enacted by a clutch of remarkable actors. (Nothing surprising here, either.) Among the stars, Alec Baldwin is hilarious as John, Jack’s burly conscience. “With age comes wisdom,” a chastened Jack says, towards the end. John counters dryly, “With age comes exhaustion.” Penélope Cruz, in a body-hugging red dress, makes the most of the part of Anna, a delectable sex worker who invades Antonio’s hotel room and, subsequently, his life.

As Phyllis and Jerry, Hayley’s parents, Judy Davis and Woody Allen display the unfussy chemistry that comes from years of working together. (He’s an opera director who once staged Rigoletto with the entire cast dressed as white mice. The critics, naturally, hated him. Or to go by Stardust Memories, they just didn’t get him.) And Benigni echoes the exquisite befuddlement of Allen in his prime, minus the heavy-duty existential hand-wringing. There’s even a hint of Jewishness in the script; we read “schmuck” in the subtitles that translate the Italian often being spoken on screen.

The four narratives are linked broadly in theme — by Allen-like characters (Leopoldo, of course, but also Jack, who is scared of adventure, and Antonio, scared of his own shadow) who commit adultery and experience, briefly, a new and exciting kind of life before being deposited back into a mundane existence. But there’s nothing beyond — or beneath — these surface similarities. Even the one-liners sound tired. (“I was never a communist. I would never share a bathroom.”)

As engaging as some of this is — and even entertaining, in the deliciously absurd scenes featuring Michelangelo’s father (played by the real-life tenor Fabio Armiliato), who belts out thrilling grand opera while in the shower — we wonder what prompts Allen to keep making these ultra-light entertainments, which, by now, he must be able to write in his sleep. Phyllis, perhaps, has the answer, when she tells her husband (the Allen character), “You equate retirement with death.” And so he keeps chugging on, adding trifling tailpieces to one of the most memorably autobiographical careers in the cinema.

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English Cinema ReviewsOctober 17, 2011