Pop Goes the Woodman

Governments may topple, stock markets may soar and crash, deadly viruses may mantle the globe, but one constant remains: Woody Allen still hankers for a Cole Porter-ized New York. You have to be a deep-dish romantic or a blinkered snoot -- maybe both -- to persist in such a demonstration. We tend to associate the obsessions of movie directors with more lurid fare: Oliver Stone and conspiracies; Sam Peckinpah and violence; Spike Lee and race. In its own small-scale way, Allen's obsession is just as fervid. He dramatizes the lives of well-to-do Upper East Siders as melancholic extensions of the popular music of the Thirties and Forties.

When his movies are really lilting along, this pop dream can seem a choice confection. When it's just getting by, you begin to resent the tony, sanitized self-infatuation of it all. Woody Allen movies work best when you're having too much fun to notice there's no garbage on the streets, no subways, no black people, no noise. You have to be a true obsessive to keep Manhattan this time-warped.

In Everyone Says I Love You, Allen keeps his warp speed constant. It's a charmingly inconsequential musical romance (Allen's first) with numbers drawn from Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, and many others. Not only Manhattan gets the Woodman treatment here; Venice and Paris come across as pop fantasylands too (not much of a stretch there).

Allen plays Joe, a novelist who lives most of the year in Paris. His daughter DJ (Natasha Lyonne), the film's narrator, is a redhead teen who lives in Upper East Side splendor with her mother Steffi (Goldie Hawn), stepdad Bob (Alan Alda), and Bob's children, Lane (Gaby Hoffmann), Laura (Natalie Portman), and Scott (Lukas Haas). Another stepsister, Skylar (Drew Barrymore), is engaged to Holden (Edward Norton), a milquetoast lawyer in her father's firm who begins the film serenading her along Fifth Avenue with "Just You, Just Me."

Throughout the movie Allen doesn't make a big deal about the musical conventions. He just lets the actors casually break into song and sometimes dance, and this could be off-putting for audiences who don't connect with the romantic traditions that inspire the director. Since most of the performers, excepting Alda and Hawn, can't sing (at least in any professional sense), the effect is sometimes like movie stars' amateur night.

But Allen means it this way, I think. He's after something besides homage here -- something closer, in a much more simplistic way, to what Dennis Potter achieved in The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven, or perhaps what Jacques Demy brought off in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. He's after the lift you get from pop; he wants to show how pop can turn the workaday into something romantic, even impassioned. The charming ditties and croon swoons on the soundtrack express more of these people's lives than they can express themselves. Their amateurishness is central to their appeal. It testifies to their heartfelt sincerity.

The problem with Allen's agenda is that, for the most part, the pop standards coming out of his actors' mouths don't quite jibe with their minds. The songs derive from a different era, a different mood. Norton singing "Just You, Just Me" or "My Baby Just Cares for Me" is a stunt in more ways than one: He seems cut off from his vocalizing because we can't really connect this type of music with this type of guy. (The Lettermen or the Swingle Singers would seem to be more his style.) Norton is essentially a stand-in for a junior-league Woody Allen. It's significant that Norton even acts like Allen -- he has the same flustered mannerisms and hectic line readings. Usually it's the actresses in Allen's movies -- especially Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton and Julie Hagerty -- who have been encouraged to ape him. He's branching out.

Allen is aware that the songs don't match up with the actors -- most of them, anyway. But for him this incongruity is proof of how far we have fallen. He's saying that these great old standards don't have to come to us; we have to come to them. They're timeless, we're evanescent. Allen's nostalgia is cast-iron. And he doesn't brook competitors. Despite all the teenagers in this film, we hear nothing of their music except for a swatch of rap, inserted condescendingly, of course. It's not enough that he pays tribute to his pop inspirations, he has to have disdain for everybody else's.

Would this film be much different without the musical numbers? Pennies from Heaven, for example, is inconceivable without its songs, even though, from a strictly narrative standpoint, it didn't need them. But Everyone Says I Love You would probably have come across in much the same way without the music, except that the numbers italicize the tissue-paper plot and help buy it off. Without the music and dance numbers, the film might seem disposable, though it kind of is anyway.

That's not all bad. Allen usually overreaches when he tries to be Ingmar Bergman, but the closer he moves from Stockholm to Tin Pan Alley, the lighter his touch. And, unfettered, he pulls off some deft comedy here. When Joe takes DJ on a vacation to Venice, she spots an American (Julia Roberts as Von) who she thinks would be perfect for him. And DJ has an edge: The mother of one of her friends in New York is a psychiatrist who has been treating Von, and, for sport, the girls have been listening in on her intimacies.

DJ tells Joe all the things he needs to know to woo Von, from her favorite vacation spots to her G-spots, and Allen turns an analysand's paranoid fantasy into a parody of how lovers know each other. Joe feels guilty about what he's doing, but he's too smitten to stop. Von is so amazed at his insight that she's smitten too. An art historian unhappily married to a shallow actor, she has found her white knight in the unlikely guise of a spindly nervous wreck. The high comedy in their scenes together is that she's so ga-ga over how simpatico they are that she never registers what a bumbling worrywart he is. He patters on about Tintoretto, but all this blissed-out woman hears is a humming sound. He might as well be spouting nonsense verse -- which he sort of is anyway. Roberts is lovely in the part. Delusion becomes her.

There are other bonuses in the cast. Alda is sharply funny as the patriarch Bob who can't seem to control anyone in his orbit. The key to his performance is that Bob doesn't really mind the lack of control. His daughters exasperate him; he wants to clonk his son for subscribing to National Review; his addled, live-in father (Patrick Cranshaw) thinks the Giants are still playing at the Polo Grounds; his wife Steffi, born of money, overdoes the liberal socialite routine. In the funniest subplot, Skylar falls in love with a paroled ex-con, hilariously played by a furtive, feral Tim Roth, who was released through Steffi's bleeding-heart ministrations. But Bob loves the messy family feeling of it all. It gives his life -- and the film -- a buzz.

After the hideous way in which Goldie Hawn came across in The First Wives Club, all shrill and collagen-lipped, she bounces back. Steffi may have all the accouterments of an Upper East Side princess, but her liberal do-gooder side is genuine. She really believes the best of everybody, even ex-cons on the make, and it's both the source of her comedy and her saving grace. Hawn isn't just doing a comic routine here; it's a full-out performance. Her scenes at the end with Allen by the Seine, or at a party where everyone dresses up as Groucho Marx, are marred by the kind of dreary you-always-made-me-laugh dialogue that the rest of the film scrupulously avoids. But Hawn brings some real feeling to the confabs. It takes a rare actress to make fun of who she's playing and still make you care powerfully about her.

The movie musical, despite this film and Evita, is still pretty much a dodo. I don't think Allen has any illusions about rejuvenating the form; this maiden voyage is also a swan song. It's a song he doesn't mind: It expresses the masochistic side of him that says we can no longer get our romantic impulses from pop culture. Except, of course, his pop culture.

Everyone Says I Love You.
Directed and written by Woody Allen; with Woody Allen, Alan Alda, Goldie Hawn, Tim Roth, Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, Julia Roberts, Edward Norton, and Natasha Lyonne.

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