“To Rome With Love” pleasant, pretty work from Woody Allen

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There’s few directors I appreciate as much as Woody Allen. But, as we Allen devotees know, its his minor films that enable us to appreciate his considerable amount of masterpieces. His newest, “To Rome With Love”, certainly doesn’t have the dramatic heft of a “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, romantic complexity of “Manhattan”, nor creative sleight-of-hand of “Deconstructing Harry”. It’s not terribly sexy, in the vein of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”. It’s not nail-bitingly tense, a la “Match Point”. It’s just minor. Charming. And that’s okay.

Evidently set in the titular city, “To Rome With Love” contains four distinct vignettes, all littered with top-tier actors. In one, Allen, in front of the camera for the first time in six years, plays Jerry, a music producer who exploits a family member’s skills at opera. The catch? The guy can only  sing in the shower. In another story, Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi play a young married couple who are split up in a foreign city to them, eventually facing pressures to cheat on each other with both a movie star and a prostitute (played by Penelope Cruz).

In perhaps the film’s weakest vignette, Roberto Benigni plays Leopoldo, an unassuming workaholic who faces massive frustration feeling that no one values his opinion. The next day, he wakes up and is inexplicably made into a massive celebrity. Finally, Jesse Eisenberg plays Jack, a neurotic architect who begins to fall in love with his fiancee’s best friend, the pretentious Monica (Ellen Page). Alec Baldwin tags along in this bit playing the mysterious John, who always seems to have advice for Jack and who no one else seems to acknowledge or see.

Allen intercuts between these four at a rapid rate, allowing us to both savor the moment as it occurs, and anticipate the next. The performances across the board are solid; in particular, Penelope Cruz is red-hot radiant, and Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page are a couple to die for.

Perhaps the most endearing part of “To Rome With Love” is its willingness to get whimsical. Allen seems to enjoy injecting a bit of fantasy into his work as of late, and it’s brought out some really clever bits. But this is a Woody Allen film, and so, naturally, it’s fundamentally the same thematic outline, riffing off existentialism, infidelities, neuroses, et cetera.

His dialogue is as tart and poppy as ever, and Darius Khondji’s cinematography captures Rome — the city, incidentally, in which I’m writing this — as vividly and gorgeously as I see it now. “To Rome With Love” succeeds in what it tries to do, it’s just that its ambitions aren’t terribly high: good dialogue, pretty sights, and another year-long wait for the next one. B-

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