Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini coined the term “paparazzi” by naming a Roman news photographer Paparazzo in his classic portrayal of celebrity, “La Dolce Vita.” Woody Allen loves Fellini more than any other filmmaker except maybe Ingmar Bergman, so it’s no surprise that paparazzi swarm the streets of “To Rome With Love,” Allen’s latest leg in his tour of European cities.
Despite being a New Yorker to his core, Allen reinvigorated his career with such productions abroad as “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and last year’s “Midnight in Paris,” his biggest hit in decades. Even by the breezy standards of “Midnight in Paris,” “To Rome With Love” is a trifle, in which Italians and American tourists flirt with each other and alternate lives amid timeless buildings. Allen’s roundelay of charming stories builds to a disappointingly modest payoff, but it mostly provides a pleasant, sun-kissed diversion.
For the first time since “Scoop” in 2006, Allen appears on screen, as a former opera director visiting Rome with his wife (Judy Davis) to see their daughter and her new beau (Alison Pill and Flavio Parenti). Unhappily retired, Allen finds an unexpected chance to revive his career when he meets the boyfriend’s father (tenor Fabio Armiliato), a mortician who sings like an angel.
Allen casts himself in “To Rome With Love” but also includes a couple of younger male surrogates. A pair of small-town newlyweds, Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi), honeymoon in Rome, but Milly becomes lost shortly after checking into their hotel. When a misdirected prostitute (Penélope Cruz) visits their room, a panicky Antonio decides to pass her off as Milly in order to land a high-paying job. Meanwhile, Milly wanders the streets, happens upon a film production and gets swept up in its wake.
Elsewhere, a successful, middle-aged architect (Alec Baldwin) strolls through a neighborhood where he briefly lived as a young man, only to run into an American architecture student (Jesse Eisenberg) who resides in his former flat. Baldwin becomes a spectator to a romantic triangle involving Eisenberg, his reliable but plain-vanilla girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) and her best friend, an erratic, enticing actress (Ellen Page) who’s quick to quote famous poets or describe affairs with lingerie models. Baldwin’s trademark sardonic detachment perfectly suits his wry commentary on Eisenberg’s romantic misadventures, even as we wonder whether he’s remembering his own past or exists only as a figment of Eisenberg’s imagination.
In films such as “The Social Network,” Eisenberg established a high-strung, fast-talking acting style, which makes his appearance here seem almost reckless. Many of Allen’s actors devolve into doing Woody Allen impressions, including John Cusack, Kenneth Branagh and this film’s Alessandro Tiberi. Thankfully, Eisenberg seems confident enough in his own brand of comic intensity that he retains his self-conscious cadences and body language. Despite the many male-female pairings in “To Rome With Love,” the movie’s heart lies in the rueful interplay between Eisenberg and Baldwin.
The remaining subplot casts Roberto Benigni (“Life Is Beautiful”) in an amusingly nonplussed turn as a humble clerk and family man who, for no explicable reason, becomes a celebrity. Benigni gives a hilariously befuddled performance as an ordinary guy thrust into the spotlight, where he’s propositioned by supermodels and quizzed by journalists about what he eats for breakfast.
In “To Rome With Love,” Allen suggests that fame and desire can be equally arbitrary: what makes some people famous follows no more logic than what causes romantic attraction. The film’s satire of celebrity proves particularly relevant in an age of reality television and “idol”-making musical competitions, although Allen doesn’t specifically acknowledge them. “Rome” unfolds in a similar mode to “Oedipus Wrecks,” Allen’s uproarious, Fellini-influenced contribution to “New York Stories.”
Unfortunately, the operatic-themed chapter with Allen’s character turns into a one-joke story, although Allen makes plenty of quips about his own image: “Don’t try to psychoanalyze me. Many have tried, all have failed.” The storylines with separated honeymooners Antonio and Milly particularly let the movie down, with sour resolutions about sexual inconstancy. Cruz’s sultry charisma always commands the big screen, but her storyline literally evokes the Madonna/whore complex in ways that feel surprisingly immature for such a venerable filmmaker.
Despite earning so many Oscar nominations for his actresses, Allen shortchanges the female characters in “To Rome With Love.” Repeatedly, they prove unattainable, untrustworthy or simply unequal to men’s unrealistic images of them, and the film’s “That’s amore!” cheerfulness can’t disguise an undercurrent of resentment. Its more generous moments seem informed by an older man’s melancholy feelings about the youthful mistakes of both genders. Perhaps Allen paid a little too much attention to the tourist attractions and not enough to the wants and needs that can lead men and women alike down the wrong avenues.
“To Rome With Love.” With Jesse Eisenberg, Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Rated PG-13. 102 minutes. Opens Friday, July 6. At AMC Phipps, Merchant Walk, Lefont Sandy Springs and Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.