CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS
Woody Allen's recent output is phenomenally variable. Some of them are perfectly civilised, handsomely crafted and stimulating entertainment (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight In Paris, Whatever Works), others are head-crushingly terrible (Cassandra's Dream, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger). But that feels like the way it's always been: I'm one of the eight people in this world who don't think that much of some of the "early funny ones" like Sleeper or Everything You Always Wanted To Know Etcetera Etcetera. (I do need to see Love And Death again, though.) And sometimes I get surprised by how enjoyable some of the lesser-rated Allens are: I confess to a liking for Stardust Memories over an acknowledged classic like Crimes And Misdemeanours, and give me a Curse Of The Jade Scorpion over a 50/50 like Melinda And Melinda any day.
Having done Barcelona, Paris and London at least twice (Cassandra's Dream and Tall Dark Stranger), Allen continues his Grand European Tour with To Rome With Love, which flits between four unrelated stories, criss-crossing each other in the Eternal City. Some are built on fantasy conceits, such as Roberto Benigni's "If you ask me...." office drone who wakes up one morning to discover that the media ARE asking him, turning him into a persecuted celebrity in the process; or Jesse Eisenberg's architecture student torn between Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page while a not-really-there Alec Baldwin provides unsolicited guidance and the wisdom of age (in a device from Play It Again, Sam). Elsewhere there are wildly overstretched observations, like the idea of people singing beautifully when they're in the shower but never outside it. And there's simple sex farce, where a newlywed has to pretend to his stuffy relatives that hooker Penelope Cruz is actually his new bride.
Made in Italy with Italian money with a substantially Italian cast and crew, it's funny as well as rather sweet and romantic, which is a tonic after the all-encompassing lack of laughs, smiles or anything at all in Tall Dark Stranger. Some scenes work better than others - the shower singing is overdone - but that's inevitable in a compendium movie. It's stuffed with stars - there's also Judy Davis and Allen himself (doing the usual Allen thing) as the parents of the shower-singer's son's fiance, and even Flash Gordon's Ornella Muti pops up briefly. I don't really mind that much that it's full of stock cardboard characters, given that it's essentially so good-natured and charming and kept me and the other eight people in the cinema chuckling through most of the running time.
That's more audible laughter than the last three Sacha Baron Cohen movies put together. Before the feature there was a trailer for an inspirational wrestling comedy (Here Comes The Boom) whose comedic content appeared to consist of little more than Kevin James being hit in the face, falling over or both. Cynics might suggest the distributors put it there to make a fairly aimless Woody Allen diversion look better and more substantial, but I'll gladly take an aimless Woody Allen diversion over a Kevin James Gets Kicked In The Nads movie, a Sacha Baron Cohen Playing A Funny Foreigner movie or an Adam Sandler Doing Pretty Much Anything movie. I rather liked it.