Defending Woody Allen’s recent travelogue phase hasn’t been too hard—especially when the foreign-shot movies have been as vital as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Match Point and Midnight in Paris. This new one, though, isn’t going to help things. Spurring an instantaneous cringe that never lets up, To Rome with Love begins with a balletic traffic cop talking to the camera in no-so-good English, introducing us to a borderline-zany cast of characters better suited to an Italian sex comedy. (Oh, for the days when Allen referenced 8 ½ and Nights of Cabiria.) Here’s a sampling, organized from passable to excruciating: Young American architect Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) falls for drama-princess Monica (Ellen Page); mortician Giancarlo (opera tenor Fabio Armiliato) can sing beautifully in the shower, so a radical director (Allen himself) hopes to bring the actual plumbing onstage; and Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), a family man, is pursued by the paparazzi for no understandable reason.
It’s almost cruel to criticize something so essentially lighthearted and disposable, but it must be said that a lot of these jokes feel distinctly recycled, mainly from Broadway Danny Rose. Allen never pushes his actors into believably conflicted terrain (“Walk into the propeller,” says a resigned Alec Baldwin, a wry, cautionary voice on Monica’s life-destroying wiles, but those romantic blades must be made of Styrofoam). The cinematographer, Darius Khondji, once shot David Fincher’s oppressive Seven; here, he musters lovely pink twilights and circling wonderment. Still, you never feel like you’re anywhere except a mediocre New Yorker casual.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf