What do these four stories—a one-gag tale vaguely reminiscent of "Oedipus Wrecks," a knockoff Euro sex farce, and two medium-high-concept fables—have in common? They all take place in Rome!
Also, they're all bad—or at least pitiably undernourished. It's as if Allen had a handful of early ideas kicking around, couldn't settle on any one of them, saw his psychological nuclear-countdown clock ticking toward the one-year mark, and threw together what he had. Though the storylines are interspersed throughout the film, they don't even cohere chronologically: One takes course over the span of an afternoon, another over several weeks, and the final two somewhere in between.
There is one good gag along the way—it involves a handshake with a mortician—and it is telling that it perhaps the simplest moment in the film. The rest is underwritten and over-explained in equal measure. As in Midnight in Paris, Allen is intent on flattering his audience by telling them things they already know. (Hemingway liked to fight!) Here again, he name-drops promiscuously (Strindberg, Pound, Dostoyevsky) but generally to no particular end. I can't say whether it is meant to be ironic, but an observation that Baldwin's character makes of Page's—"She knows one line from every poet, just enough to fake it"—serves as an admirable critique of the film as a whole.
Allen seems to be aiming for the precise intersection of art and commerce in which sophistication is implied, but nothing that takes place is ever obscure or challenging or revelatory. Locales are familiar, references transparent, jokes patiently underlined. To cite a typical example: When Cruz's prostitute is touring the Sistine Chapel, another character asks, "Can you imagine working all that time on your back?" A glance from Cruz would have sufficed as punch line. But Allen evidently lacks such faith in his audience, instead having her spell it out: "I can." All that's missing is the rim-shot.
The more wearying tropes of the Allen oeuvre—the rampant infidelities, the men lusting after women 30 years their juniors, the prurient whiff of girl-on-girl action—are present in abundance, and the dialogue is frequently arduous. (Wife contemplating cheating on her husband: "My goodness. What a dilemma!" Movie star with whom she may cheat: "Let's not get into semantics.")
Toward the end of the film, two of its storylines begin to converge, at least implicitly. Allen's character gets one more chance to produce a show, and he is delighted with the result, even though it is ridiculed in the Italian press. (He doesn't realize this, of course, because despite his education and cosmopolitanism he believes the word imbecili must be a compliment akin to "maestro." I would like to say that Allen trusts the audience to discern its true meaning, but, no, he has another character translate it for us.) Meanwhile, the fame that briefly alighted upon Benigni's character has just as capriciously departed, leaving him deprived of the opportunity to have threesomes with supermodels. "To be a celebrity is definitely better," he declares, as he literally undresses in the street, desperate for attention, any attention.
Is the allure of ongoing fame—a panned opera production, the stare of sidewalk gawkers, or even a slipshod film rushed into a predetermined schedule—worth embarrassing oneself for? We seem to have Allen's answer.