In To Rome With Love, the latest stop on Woody Allen's prolonged European vacation, there's a recurring reference to "Ozymandias melancholia," a made-up condition in which being among the ruins of a fallen empire triggers a deep sense of loss and depression. Sour critics will take the opportunity to appropriate the phrase as a metaphor for Allen's late career: Once a pillar of effortless genius, they'll say he's crumbled into a broken relic. To behold his decrepit state is to mourn the glory of the past.
Screw them: Allen doesn't owe anyone another masterpiece. It's a good thing, too, because a masterpiece To Rome With Love is not. Interweaving four stories linked only by setting and loose themes of celebrity and adultery, it's like Allen emptied his notebook of a few half-conceived ideas, then used them to fund a Roman holiday. So what, though? If Woody wants to spend his golden years making movies purely as an excuse to visit the world's greatest cities, he's earned the right. At age 76, with 42 features to his name and an above-.500 batting average, what else does he have to prove?
When Allen tosses off a film that indeed proves nothing of consequence, it's hardly worth despairing. Make no mistake—To Rome With Love is terribly uninspired. In Midnight in Paris, the City of Light clearly inflamed Allen's passion: He opened the film with the same montage of location photography he lavished upon his beloved New York in Manhattan. Despite the affectionate title, he isn't nearly as enamored with the Eternal City. None of the crosscutting vignettes—which jerk the film uncomfortably from farce to fantasy—have much to say about Rome itself. Although sumptuously photographed by cinematographer Darius Khondji, the city is a mere set piece, lending the entire movie a tepid air.
But the film still has its moments, and most of them belong to Allen. He employs not one but three avatars—Jesse Eisenberg, Roberto Benigni and Alessandro Tiberi—but he out-Woodys them all as an unhappily retired opera director. It's a performance so hyper-neurotic it borders on self-parody, and that just might be the intent. His arc culminates in a somewhat hacky sight gag, but it helps explain the impulse that compels Allen, after almost a half-century, to continue working: It's better to perform Pagliacci in an onstage shower than quietly submit to age.
SEE IT: To Rome With Love opens Friday at Regal Fox Tower, Hollywood Theatre and more.