Woody Allen still has it.
Except that you don't get quite all of it in "To Rome with Love."
By "it," I mean the ability to tell an engaging story, to get a strong laugh and to spur philosophical reflections.
In this photo provided by Sony Pictures Classics, Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg star in Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love.”
This latest entry from the veteran writer-director has story and laughs, but it never comes together with a consistent message.
Actually, "stories" would be more accurate.
Continuing his recent trend of setting films outside New York - which served as his muse for decades - Allen juggles four plotlines against the backdrop of the Italian capital:
He and Judy Davis play a couple who've flown to Rome to meet their daughter's fiance; her future father-in-law has a gorgeous voice, and Allen's character, a stage veteran, wants to make him a star - but the man can sing only in the shower, necessitating some absurd but amusing machinations.
Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig work out a love triangle, accompanied by Alec Baldwin as a sort inexplicably ever-present Greek chorus.
Roberto Benigni plays an office clerk who suddenly finds - also without explanation - that absolutely everyone is interested in him.
And Italian actors Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi play newlyweds separated on their honeymoon; the husband falls in with an aggressive prostitute (Penelope Cruz) and the wife wanders onto a film set loaded with her favorite stars.
Yes, it's another of Allen's dream casts, and he puts it to good use - though I felt the talented Eisenberg ("Social Network") wasn't given enough to do.
Benigni - who accepted his 1999 Oscar by climbing over and then standing on the seats - is particularly strong in a role that requires him to subdue his usual antic persona.
As with "Midnight in Paris" - the biggest commercial hit of Allen's long career - the director and his photographer have picked out many tasty locales in their European city and shot it all with tender loving care.
And as so often in Allen's work, "TRWL" boasts a soundtrack ripe with carefully picked songs - including, in this case, plenty of opera and Italian standards, with the focus on "Volare."
That last choice seems corny, but it works, enhancing the otherworldly tone Allen aims for - a tone that smooths over his surreal plot mechanics, which are never explained (more echoes of "Midnight in Paris").
The film's only serious problem is that its storylines don't resolve in a uniform manner; except for some effective commentary on celebrity and a few wry autobiographical touches, it's tough to figure out what Allen is trying to say.
Of course, it may be that - as with the underrated "Scoop" and "Small Time Crooks" - he just wants a bit of fun.
The movie's tone feels too reflective for that; but then again, Allen may be addressing its viewers and critics when his character declares:
"Don't psychoanalyze me. Many have tried; all have failed."