In Woody Allen's new film, To Rome with Love, people — like, really young people — still talk, improbably, about "neuroses." Horny, middle-age businessmen actually stand around the water cooler and ogle the hot secretary, as in the Playboy cartoons of the ancients. In the Allen Legendarium, Freudian psychiatrists never vanished, still roaming the land like the tragic elves of Middle Earth.
All of which is completely okay, because, like Tolkien, Allen has created a magical universe in which these things can persist. A more accurate literary comparison might be P.G. Wodehouse, whose signature array of gestures and conventions could only exist in a parallel world of upper-class fops chasing pigs around stately mansions. It all hangs together by virtue of sensibility alone.
This time around, a Love Boat's worth of stars breeze through four intercut Roman tales. Briefly: A young husband (Alessandro Tiberi) is forced, through a comedy-of-errors sequence of events, to present an earthy call girl (Penélope Cruz) as his wife to a group of stuffy, distant relatives. Meanwhile, his real wife (Alessandra Mastronardi) has a fling with a famous actor.
Mortician Giancarlo (tenor Fabio Armiliato) sings beautifully, but only in the shower. Allen, as a retired opera director whose daughter is about to marry Giancarlo's son, overhears him and insists that he audition for the opera, which goes badly because Giancarlo can only sing in the shower, and, well, you can see where that's headed. Allen deserves credit here for his continued ability to stage absurd set pieces.
Allen also includes one of his idiosyncratic, Zelig-style fantasies, involving a schlubby, boring businessman (Roberto Benigni) who steps out of his house one morning into a scrum of paparazzi and discovers that he has become wildly famous overnight for absolutely no reason.
The most nuanced story concerns American architect John (Alec Baldwin) returning to the district where he lived as a young man 30 years before. Befriending an American student named Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), John watches as the younger man romances his fiancée's best friend, Monica (Ellen Page). After the setup, Allen leaves it artfully unclear whether these events occur in the present or if Jack is John's memory of his younger self.
In Monica, Allen is trying to suggest an arty, mesmerizing unicorn, an unobtainable locus of male obsession, though from a casting point of view, Juno's charisma might be on a different frequency. Baldwin pops in and out of scenes like a sly, portly genie, sometimes visible only to Eisenberg, often engaging characters in conversations the others can't hear. John, with the benefit of experience, warns Jack not to pursue Monica, pointing out the holes in her pseudo-intellectual, bohemian façade.
Speaking of which: In the same way that old men's ears and noses develop into exaggerated, cartilaginous bulbs, Allen's problematic portrayals of women have become more pronounced over the years. Eisenberg's earnest girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) is a faint sketch compared to Monica, a sharply written liar who sleeps with her best friend's boyfriend.
Women throw themselves in groups into the married Benigni's bed, and Allen the screenwriter overtly states that wives understand that they have to "share" their famous husbands with "the public," and goddammit, Woody Allen, you don't have to articulate every gross idea that goes through your head.
Characters specifically address the "whore/Madonna" dichotomy, presumably to excuse, y' know, embodying a whore or a Madonna. Meanwhile, the men are allowed soulful, middle-age reveries about their lives, genial adultery, and most of the funny lines.
But Allen seems without actual ill intent here, and again, the film is set in a magical realm, as evidenced by architects who still draw with pencils and T-squares, the existence of such a thing as a "high school astronomy teacher," and impoverished college students who propose "sailing around the boot" of Italy, but who never mention their magical sacks of gold. The great Judy Davis, as Allen's wife, tells him several times that he's living in a fantasy, so maybe that whole thing is already in his wheelhouse.
Shot by Darius Khondji — who also worked on Allen's Midnight in Paris — this Rome is luminous, and Allen, as in Manhattan, is great at imbuing his film with a strong sense of location. But it's a good thing that his favorite themes are kind of ageless, because the man could not be further away, as measured by time and tax brackets, from the lives of actual human beings as they exist in the real world.