“To Rome With Love” a first-rate cast and some fantastic dialogue.

By Forrest Hartman

To Rome With Love
2½ stars
Rated R for some sexual references
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

Despite his illustrious reputation, Woody Allen is a hit-and-miss writer-director, and this has been particularly true in recent years. Gems like “Match Point” (2005) and “Midnight in Paris” are contrasted against lesser works like “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream,” meaning viewers can never be sure what to expect. Fortunately, second-tier Woody Allen is still palatable, meaning even troubled films – like “To Rome With Love” – have worthwhile elements.

The best parts of “Rome” include beautiful Italian backdrops, a first-rate cast and some fantastic dialogue. Sadly, these things are wrapped in a larger package that doesn’t really gel. One problem is the conceptualization. Allen begins the movie by zooming in on a Roman traffic cop who tells us that he has witnessed many of the city’s great stories. We are then treated to four fanciful tales that are individually interesting but baffling as a collection.

The best of the four centers on John (Alec Baldwin), a famous American architect who uses a return trip to Rome to reexamine his past. Allen allows this by introducing John to a younger version of himself (Jesse Eisenberg), prompting the older, wiser man to provide commentary to his youthful counterpart. Eisenberg and Baldwin are terrific, and they benefit from supporting work by Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig.

Less successful is a fanciful tale about a working-class Italian man (Roberto Benigni) who awakes to find that he has become a celebrity. For no apparent reason, the people of Italy are enamored with the most mundane details of his life, like what he had for breakfast. Allen is surely commenting on modern media, but his message isn’t clear.

The writer-director treads equally bizarre ground with the story of an American music producer (Allen himself) who believes his daughter’s soon-to-be father-in-law has what it takes to be an opera star. The only problem is, the man can only sing in the shower.

Allen’s fourth story is more believable and fun. It centers on a pair of newlyweds (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi) who travel to Rome for their honeymoon but end up spending their first day philandering with other people. This bit features a sharp, flirty performance by Penelope Cruz.

Watching “To Rome With Love,” one wonders if the project would have worked better as a series of short films. The tone and structure of each individual narrative is so different that blending them into a package seems forced.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a featurette on the making of the film.

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