Woody Allen's "To Rome with Love" began with better titles. Yet despite the exquisite locations of the filmmaker's first story of love, Italian style, this bland ensemble romance deserves the generic name rather than the clever working titles it started with.
Allen initially called it "Bop Decameron," then changed it to "Nero Fiddled" before he and his distributor decided to slip in the name of the Eternal City.
Hey, it helped to have the City of Light mentioned in the title of last year's Allen hit "Midnight in Paris." So putting Rome in the name makes good marketing sense to hint that his latest continues the trend of light romance in a beautiful Old World capital.
Unfortunately, "To Rome with Love" lives up - or rather, lives down - to the superficial postcard sentiment of its title.
Weaving four stories of Italians and American visitors, the writer-director creates a lot of clever moments with his ensemble comedy that features Allen's first on-screen appearance since 2006's "Scoop." In between the good times, the story and characters just drift about awkwardly, stuck on a walking tour of Rome that continually bumps up against dead ends, or worse, circles back so we wind up seeing the same things a few times too many.
It's hard to even pick out a highlight among the four stories. Parts of each story work quite well, while other portions just weigh the scenarios down.
The film almost comes down to how well the actors inhabit their roles. Allen's known for giving his cast plenty of leeway. That's often resulted in Academy Award performances, and just as often has left Allen's stars nervously milling around.
There are no Oscar prospects on screen in "To Rome with Love," but Alec Baldwin conveys a sense of wistful nostalgia as an architect seemingly strolling into his own memories of Italy in his youth.
Baldwin's a wry, omniscient commentator wafting in and out of a love triangle involving Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), Sally (Greta Gerwig) and her seductive pal Monica (Ellen Page). Gerwig's sadly cast as a flavorless third wheel, but Eisenberg and Page are so tentative and cold in their supposedly impetuous fling that they seem like neutered pups alongside old hound Baldwin.
Roberto Benigni manages a few laughs as a dreary but contented family man hurled into notoriety after Rome's press and paparazzi inexplicably choose him as a person of interest, shadowing him like an A-lister and hanging on his every word about what he had for breakfast. It's a lightweight commentary on fleeting fame, and the gimmick quickly wears thin.
The weakest of the stories centers on naive newlyweds Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi), who come to Rome for a fresh start but end up separated and tossed into romantic misadventures with others. Antonio winds up with a bombshell hooker (Penelope Cruz, an Oscar winner for Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), Milly with an Italian movie star (Antonio Albanese).
Antonio and Milly's meanderings are pointless and uninvolving. Cruz, however, knows how to play voluptuous in her sleep, so she makes her little corner of the scenario fun and sexy.
Allen co-stars as retired music producer Jerry, who comes to Rome with his wife, Phyllis (Allen veteran Judy Davis) to meet the Italian fiance of their daughter, Hayley ("Midnight in Paris" co-star Alison Pill).
After Jerry hears the sublime opera vocals of Hayley's future father-in-law, Giancarlo (Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato) from the shower, he's determined to make the humble undertaker into a star. Giancarlo insists he sings only for personal pleasure, and when he auditions at Jerry's insistence, he discovers that his talent fails him outside the shower.
You can guess the rest. The scenes of Giancarlo performing on stage could have become as repetitious as the media's pursuit of Benigni, but Allen shows enough restraint and gives the sequences enough diversity that they remain consistently funny.
The time away from the screen hasn't helped Allen's acting chops. He's curiously listless as Jerry, and Davis, who was razor-sharp in Allen's "Husbands and Wives," rarely rises above dreary hen-pecking as his wife.
The ineffable magic that made "Midnight in Paris" click eludes Allen here. When in Paris, Allen's gimmicks coalesced into a sly, engaging romantic fantasy.
When in Rome, though, it's not Nero who's fiddling, but Allen, bopping and dithering around the city like a tourist so desperate to cram in all the sights that he comes away only with a few crisp highlights and a lot of out-of-focus snapshots.
"To Rome with Love," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R for some sexual references. Running time: 112 minutes. Two stars out of four.