Woody Allen's slack new movie, To Rome with Love, comes fortified with a fine bit of nonsense involving a shower, a loofah and a nervous Italian tenor who's terrified of performing in public.
Allen repeats the joke at well-spaced intervals, and he's right to: It represents what's best in his comedy, a goofball grace note in which he invites us to join in his delight in the sublime absurdity of artistic endeavor. Around my local screening room, it seemed that just about everyone obliged.
Jerry (Allen, playing his customary hand-wringing worrywart) is an opera director chafing at retirement and still yearning for the smash hit that eluded him during an avant-garde career. Seizing the day, Jerry throws himself into an ill-considered adventure that threatens to derail his life, to say nothing of the equilibrium of those around him.
As his acid-tongued wife (Judy Davis) correctly observes, for Jerry, retirement signifies death. The parallels with Allen's one-movie-a-year fecundity may be obvious, and certainly it's an achievement for a man nearing 80 to stay busy in a business that has its eyes locked on the tot-to-tween markets.
But when it's not being goofy, To Rome with Love feels thin and lazy, another collection of familiar ensemble skits carelessly strung together in a cross-generational contemplation of the Big Issues that have plagued Allen's life and fed his art. (Or maybe it's the other way around, but who can tell the difference?)
As ever, the setting is golden: the Eternal City, as seen through the eyes of Americans rich enough to stay in plush hotels with easy access to scenic ruins overflowing with the lessons of history. (If only anyone were listening.)
In town to meet the fiance of his daughter (an underused Alison Pill), Jerry maneuvers her shy future father-in-law, Giancarlo (the sporting Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato, in his first movie role) into taking his mellifluous voice public.
Across town, without noticeable transition, dwells Giancarlo's obverse, a talentless office drone (Roberto Benigni,) whose accidental, unearned celebrity upends his humdrum but contented life.
Meanwhile, the usual hapless Americans abroad set about wrecking their lives for love, or something like it. An unlikely oracle, Alec Baldwin is modestly wry and funny as a visiting architect reliving a long-ago doomed romance through the infatuation of a young student (Jesse Eisenberg, replicating Allen's speech tics without strain) with the pretentiously arty best friend (an uncharacteristically irritating Ellen Page) of his stable girlfriend (Greta Gerwig).
Allen counterpoints this threesome, who could use more sense and less adventure, with a fuddy-duddy young Roman couple who could use a lot more fun before they settle into premature connubial boredom.
Which brings us, drearily, to the statutory good-hearted hooker. The world's most beautiful woman, Penelope Cruz brings a warm practicality and zany brio to the role. But Woody, enough with the bubbly whores, OK?
To Rome with Love plows the usual terrain of life and death, art and junk, the cost-benefit matrix of fame, the double edge of romantic love. "Go ahead," Baldwin tells Eisenberg as he gears up to destroy himself, "walk into the propeller."
Someone's been saying that in every Allen movie since Alvy Singer told us we "need the eggs" in Annie Hall. There's nothing wrong with tilling the same patch of soil again and again, of course, if you can find something fresh to say about it.
But To Rome with Love is no Annie Hall, and it lacks even the fluid rhythms of Midnight in Paris. Allen's observations on celebrity are almost as banal as the trappings of fame themselves, and who else could get away with "Volare" over his opening sequence? The neurotic ambivalence that energized his work for so long grows stale, and perhaps he knows it.
Many years ago a British interviewer asked Allen how his 23 years in psychoanalysis were going. After a long pause, the director replied, "Slowly." There's a line in To Rome with Love that makes it clear the director looks back on his treatment as a waste of time, personally and artistically. Perhaps, finally, it is.