The latest product of Woody Allen's one-man movie mill is called To Rome With Love, a title as insipid as anything that's wobbled off the Garry Marshall line in recent years. Don't be fooled: There are Olive Gardens that feel more authentically Italian than this shabby tourist trap. And, as in the overpopulated agent bait of Marshall's New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day, the action here plays uncomfortably like a Love, American Style marathon.
If you don't remember that show — an early 1970s syndicated time filler made up of witless blackout sketches in which C-listers on the way down met future nobodies on the climb — well, that's good. It's one of the five programs you meet in TV hell, and your brain doesn't need that. But look it up on YouTube and you'll see something only a little more sexually baffled, woman-frightened and culturally reductive than To Rome With Love, yet another gorgeously lighted and filmed Allen vehicle for which smart young actors (pity most Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page) have lined up to strand themselves in first-draft purgatorio.
And not even new first draft. Midnight in Paris, the 2011 movie that restored Allen's critical standing and delivered what was for the 76-year-old director a Pirates of the Caribbean-like box office, peered backward not only at a jazz-age Continent but also at the wistful time travel and magical realism of Allen's '70s short fiction. In Rome, Allen again seems to have flipped through his bottom drawer for ideas (even as he pulls only from the top shelf for cast and crew).
That means, for instance, one thread devoted to the sudden and unexplained fame of the humble, middle-class business drone played by Roberto Benigni, and another that follows a humble undertaker whose brilliant tenor is opera-ready only in the shower. Thirty years ago, Allen might have been confident enough in the constancy of his idea stream to render the bit about staging Pagliacci, with its lead boxed into a running shower stall, as nothing more than that: a bit, a cutaway punch line. Here, it's just one labored subplot among several. (Only Alec Baldwin walks away unscathed, mostly because his character listens to the natterings around him and, more than once, pronounces, "Bullshit!" You long for his company in the theater.) At about 110 minutes, it's probably Allen's longest movie; I would check, but I just had to sit through it and I'm too tired to look it up.
More exhausting is the welcome that Rome has already received in some quarters. David Denby's New Yorker apologia, for example, subjects the movie's barely sketched notions of celebrity and naiveté (the short read: Being famous and/or upper class is awesome!) to a rigorous and dully wrongheaded unpacking. Fine: Woody Allen makes a movie a year to stave off mortality, and he has loosed himself from his Upper East Side creative ghetto by making Europe his new canvas for the depiction of casual wealth distracted by neurotic desire. That's new but hardly novel. A real and welcome late-career surprise would be a second or a third draft of his next screenplay. Or retirement.