06/20/2012 06:12 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2012

Love Italian Style: Hanging Out with Woody Allen

Everyone (some real life family and old flames famously excluded) loves Woody Allen.

At a press conference at the Regency for his new film To Rome With Love on Tuesday, reporters took that as a given, asking his actors how they get past their own adoration for the auteur. A love fest ensued. Penelope Cruz says she is happy not only to work with him; she gets to hang out. The Oscar winner for his Vicky Cristina Barcelona had, just the night before, heard him play at the Carlisle where, when he's not shooting movies in Italy, or Spain, or France, he performs with his jazz band on Monday nights. Extending his riffing to filmmaking, he lets his talented cast "go" with the material. As a prostitute in To Rome, Cruz speaks Italian, a language the Spanish star perfected when she worked on Sergio Castellitto's terrific Don't Move as a homely peasant woman. Yes, homely! Allen has no problem with foreign tongues, knowing none. In Vicky Cristina, she ad-lib "like crazy" with Javier Bardem. Alec Baldwin, seated to her right, quipped, all the ad-libbing worked out: they ended up married.

In To Rome, Allen plays a retired opera impresario, finding a tenor who can only sing in the shower. The sight gag defies language, recurring, and giving To Rome the Allenesque touch of funny excess. As he explained his work on this film, he wrote vignettes that were intrinsically Italian. While his love affair with Italian cinema, with Fellini, De Sica, and Antonioni may provide some inspiration, the truth is both banal and joyfully fortuitous, an opportunity, you could say. Rome became his location because that's where the financing was. Ditto for Paris, lieu for last year's hit. Next up is New York and San Francisco, working with Baldwin, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Dice Clay, among others.

Set anywhere, his preoccupations are universal. A couple from the provinces wants to settle in Rome. Through various mishaps they become separated. Anna (Cruz) comes to the wrong hotel room and must play the husband's wife in a red cleaving mini-dress. Roberto Benigni's Leopardo is an ordinary man until the press descends on him asking questions about his breakfast, shaving habits, extending Allen's long time interest in fame and its folly. John (Baldwin), a noted architect, imagines his youth in Rome: a one-man Greek chorus, he shadows an architectural student Jack (a superb Jesse Eisenberg), cautioning him in his relationships with his live-in girlfriend (Greta Gerwig) vs. her best friend Monica (Ellen Page) who comes to visit.

Alessandra Mastronardi plays Milly, the wife who, while her husband makes it with Anna, ends up in a hotel room with a famous actor on the verge of exploiting her own opportunity. So nervous the first day, the young Italian actress said she could only look at the floor. "You did the same," she turned to Allen, causing him to say, "I never look at anyone." When I asked her how Woody directed her, Alessandra said he explained how shy and demure Milly is. "No she's not," Alessandra retorted laughing. "Look at where she ends up in bed."

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.