“To Rome With Love” Has Charm to Spare

Left to Right: Ellen Page as Monica and Jesse Eisenberg as Jack. Photo by Philippe Antonello / Gravier Productions, Inc., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

On the heels of his smashing success with last year’s “Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen has turned in an entertaining trifle in the form of an absurdist travelogue. “To Rome With Love” is a mild letdown, considering the splendid qualifications of its cast, but as a minor work from one of America’s most prolific and gifted filmmakers, it has charm to spare.

Consider the delightful chemistry between the iconic director (back onscreen for the first time since 2006’s “Scoop) and Judy Davis, the actress who delivered arguably the finest work of her career in Allen’s searing 1992 drama, “Husbands and Wives.” They are such a joy to watch together that I could easily envision a spinoff film centering on their relationship. Yet the Allen/Davis scenes amount to little more than a diverting subplot in this hodgepodge of tall tales set in the titular Italian city.

The best tale by far features Ellen Page as an unlikely seductress who casts her spell on a flummoxed Jesse Eisenberg, an actor who’s often been compared to Page’s “Juno” co-star, Michael Cera. I’ve been eager to see Eisenberg cast in an Allen film ever since I saw him channel the great director’s neurotic mannerisms in “The Squid and the Whale.” Yet while Eisenberg’s character falls a bit flat, Page steals the show with her wild exuberance and (yes) ravishing features. Cinematographer Darius Khondji (“Delicatessen”) photographs her face in such a way that it appears to be glowing. Alec Baldwin also scores laughs as a wistful, cynical gentlemen who interjects common sense into the young lovers’ ill-fated interludes. Lost in the shuffle is indie queen Greta Gerwig, who appears amusingly aloof, but doesn’t have enough screen time to leave an impression. The Penélope Cruz subplot is funny but one-note, while the Roberto Benigni scenes don’t really work at all. There is one running gag that is truly inspired and laugh-out-loud funny, and unlike most critics in America, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it in print.

What links most of these storylines is the theme of infidelity, which Allen approaches with a sense of cheerful inevitability, devoid of the emotional stakes that made “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” so compelling. This is a perfectly pleasant film, but is admittedly worth a rental rather than a full-priced movie ticket. It does prove, however, my theory that every Allen film has bits of genius worth savoring. He has made far more good films than bad ones, and if you’d like proof, check out my list of the Top Ten Underrated Woody Allen Films. My top choice is a woefully overlooked masterpiece that functioned as somewhat of a precursor to “Paris”…

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