It’s not possible for Woody Allen to escape the anxiety of Federico Fellini’s influence while making a movie about Rome. That’s what we imagine, at least, awaiting the opening scenes. We want to know if Allen will match the satirical ritualistic moves Fellini demonstrated in his underappreciated Roma, featuring a freeway ride into the Eternal City with wrecks, fire, and water. Even before Allen gives us an image, he delivers the goods in his own inimitable style: the schmaltzy opening chords of “Volare.” We then cut to a traffic cop in the middle of a Colosseum neighborhood, talking to the camera about the city with its thousands of stories, proving yet again Allen’s best observation: that every archetype eventually becomes a cliché.
Too bad he can’t maintain the brilliance of that high/low juxtaposition for the next two hours while presenting us four disconnected stories, each presided over by a genius or fairy of misrule. Allen himself appears in a farcical tale of opera and shower singing, Roberto Benigni illustrates the thesis that some people can be famous for just being famous, Penélope Cruz stars in a bittersweet story of big-city infidelities, and Alec Baldwin enacts yet another time-travel story of love and regret. If there’s any uniting idea here, it isn’t obvious, and it sometimes feels like a catchall, as if Allen had a bunch of short-story ideas and just clumped them together. But it also has spectacular vistas and jokes about jet turbulence and atheism.
I enjoyed every minute of To Rome with Love, though the city doesn’t inspire Allen the way Paris did. The best thing the film has to offer is Allen himself, playing yet another nebbishy man who talks too much and doesn’t own his own foolishness. Like Chaplin in his old age, Allen is aging into a marvel of timing, gesture, and shtick. Maybe it isn’t Fellini, but it’s a fine syrupy postcard from the land of Virgil and “Volare.”