Everyone knows Woody Allen plays jazz clarinet. In fact, documentarian Barbara Kopple made a pretty good film of his band in 1997 called "Wild Man Blues."
Think of "To Rome With Love" -- the latest in Allen's post-graduate grand tour movies -- as a long jazz solo by a hugely talented but excruciatingly bored musician. Which is to say that some of the comedy licks in the film are pretty good, even if familiar. Some are positively inspired. And some are, quite frankly, as tired as can be and based on ideas that he would probably have rejected out of hand when he was working at the top of his game 20 years ago.
Allen and Judy Davis play an American couple in Rome to meet their daughter's new Italian fiance and his parents. Alison Pil, of Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom," plays his daughter.
Greta Gerwig is in it, too, playing the girlfriend of Jesse Eisenberg, which is wonderful news. If Gerwig could somehow slip into frequent rotation in Allen's stock company, there'd have been some major point to this film after all, besides all the comic tourism that Allen is doing in late life (and which is raking in nice box office returns from Americans smitten with locations like Paris, London, Rome and Madrid).
He's admitted flat-out that he got started doing it in "Match Point" because Britain gave him some financial breaks to film his unusual, semi-Hitchcockian suspense thriller there.
Since then, it's as if he wanted to leave grubby old Brooklyn -- Manhattan, too -- as far behind as possible.
Alec Baldwin plays an American architect back in Rome after spending his early life there. He plays an apparition -- nicely unexplained -- to Eisenberg, who is having a flirtation with his girlfriend's promiscuous, man-eating best friend (played by Ellen Page, not exactly typecasting).
There are the usual snotty and fatiguing Allen jokes full of literacy jammed down your throat to prove how phony some people are -- references to Yeats and "Ozymandias melancholia" -- but it all has just as much phony superficiality in his film as it's supposed to prove about his characters.
The minute you hear one of Allen's whiners complaining "I haven't made my mark," you want to step behind the screen and throttle the guy who's been making a film a year about such people for decades.
You get just as much of a luxuriant tourist view of Rome as you did of Paris in the overpraised and all-too-successful "Midnight in Paris": There's the Victor Emmanuel Monument, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, etc.
Allen remains one of the great gag writers in the Western World so, of course, there are a few very funny lines sprinkled in.
But in the middle of watching this experienced soloist play some comic variations on some pretty old comic licks, there's at least one inspired chorus coming out of one of the oldest cliches extant. The cliche is that almost all of us love to sing in the shower. Some of us are even pretty good at it. He takes that to hilarious comic extremes by showing us an Italian mortician who can only sound like Caruso when he's in the shower.
So Allen -- playing a musical impresario from New York who once staged a production of "Rigoletto" where everyone was in costume as white mice -- presents the fellow that way. He's naked onstage singing in a portable shower -- giving recitals at first and, at long last, playing the coveted role of his life time as Pagliacci.
Add to those scenes some pretty good wisecracks -- especially those delivered by Allen and Baldwin -- and you've got a passable reason to sit through the film.
It's near-unanimous, nevertheless, that the time has arrived for Woody Allen, travel agent, to close up shop, come back home and figure out some interesting new stories he might actually tell about life on American soil.
TO ROME WITH LOVE
3 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Judy Davis, Ellen Page, Greta Gerwig, Penelope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg
DIRECTOR: Woody Allen
RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes
RATING: R for sexual references.
THE LOWDOWN: Newest Woody Allen comedy has American neurotics and narcissists in tourist Rome confronting themselves as usual.