Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Everyone Says I Love You

Woody Allen's tribute to the American musical comedy, Everyone Says I Love You, is a ramshackle ode to a mostly lost artform, occasionally failing in various ways but more often succeeding by being as moving, funny, and charming as the films it seeks to emulate. Allen conceives of his plot as simply an excuse to assemble a large and star-studded ensemble cast, constituting the members of an upper-class extended family and their various love interests, both fleeting and enduring, and to stage a dazzling array of musical numbers. The stories (for there are several) all center around the family of Steffi (Goldie Hawn) and Bob (Alan Alda), two typical faux-intellectual Woody Manhattanites: he's a lawyer, she's an ultra-left do-gooder whose pet cause is prison reform ("they should be able to decorate their own cells"). Their daughter Skylar (Drew Barrymore) is getting married to her average joe boyfriend Holden (Edward Norton in an early role), but she still harbors secret fantasies of a "white knight" sweeping her off her feet. Meanwhile, Joe's two daughters from a previous marriage (Gaby Hoffman and a teenage Natalie Portman) have their own romantic foibles. Steffi's daughter DJ (Natasha Lyonne) — from an earlier marriage to Joe (Woody Allen) — narrates the film, providing wry commentary on her family while running through her own seemingly endless gamut of week-long affairs, with each one being the dreamiest, sexiest, cutest one yet.

The cast is big enough as it is, even before adding in all the rest of the maids, friends, momentary love interests, and extras, and the film would threaten to careen out of control if it weren't held together by DJ's flighty but no-nonsense narration, which allows the plot to skip haphazardly from one incident to the next, sometimes forgetting about characters and subplots for long stretches of time before belatedly doubling back to stitch up the loose ends. It's a charming conceit, and the distinctive, oft-underused Lyonne pulls it off well with her sarcastic lilt. The semi-random plot and large cast also provide Woody with all the excuse and opportunity he needs to stage one musical number after another. A few of these are flops, like a misconceived funeral home number where the singing, dancing ghosts are sabotaged by some of the lamest special effects ever committed to film. It's also unfortunate that Woody was unable to convince Drew Barrymore to sing in her own voice as the rest of the cast did. One of the most charming facets of the film is the spontaneous, free-wheeling quality of most of its musical numbers, the sense that these are real people simply bursting out into song for the hell of it. Few of the actors have actual good voices, but it hardly matters, since they're clearly just having fun and going with it. In the one scene where Barrymore's character gets a song, the distance and artificiality of the obvious overdubbing hurts the moment, all the more so since it's meant to be expressing introspective and heartfelt sentiments for the character.

For the most part, though, the musical numbers work beautifully, and some of them are downright stunning. Probably the best is an early scene, the first big musical set piece, at a Manhattan jewelry store where Holden is preparing to buy a ring for Skylar, when he begins singing Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares For Me." The scene progresses naturally for the first verse or so, with the store sales clerk nodding indulgently along with the lyrics, as though Holden were simply talking to him. At first, it seems that Woody has solved the age-old problem of the artificiality of musical conventions by simply ignoring it — but at this point the scene abruptly bursts apart into a fully choreographed and joyously vibrant musical pastiche. With a quick burst of motion, Holden leaps to his feet, his chair pulled away behind him as the salespeople in the store join him for a wonderfully executed song-and-dance number. The camera setups are simple, with Woody mostly taking a straight-ahead view on the dancers and simply letting them perform, reveling in the vibrant, shifting patterns they create in front of him.

It's a scene of pure fun and a heartfelt tribute to a cinematic form Woody clearly loves but hadn't had much opportunity to nod to in his previous films. Other scenes provide still more models for the kinds of musical numbers Woody can execute when the inspiration hits him. The opening number, with Holden singing his love to Skylar, begins with a slowly panning shot across a fountain, its jets of water periodically blocking and revealing the view of the lovers behind it, as they laugh and embrace and walk together in pace with the camera's tracking. Then, as Holden continues to sing, Woody cuts away to a series of languid, unpopulated images of springtime New York beauty, all bright and warm with the colors of flowers and brilliant sunlight. It's a conception of a musical number in which images of the city stand in for choreography. Woody also has a lot of obvious fun with a number where a bunch of Parisian Groucho Marx imitators stage a French-language song-and-dance for a chorus of Marx brothers, who slouch and shrug their way through the steps with bushy eyebrows flailing. A tribute to one of Woody's favorite artists, the scene creates an admirable pastiche of the musical interludes from Duck Soup. Even better is the meditative, magical dance between Woody and Goldie Hawn towards the end of the film, in which she is lofted into the air with a floating grace and easy defiance of gravity. The casual way in which this magic happens, its inexplicable beauty and simplicity, makes this one of the enduring images from Woody's filmography — shot from a distance so as to emphasize the reality of this magic accomplished with no visual trickery, doubles, or cuts, only wires and the graceful moves of the two dancers.

Not everything in the film works quite so well or so effortlessly. Allen has often been criticized for failing to include a more ethnically diverse (and thus true) cross-section of New York in his films, which is understandable but beside the point most of the time. His films are unabashed fantasies, and are generally concerned with a pretty constricted social set. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the choice to limit his stories to his characters' vision of the city they live in, which is of course a fairly whitewashed vision. Everyone Says I Love You makes some token gestures outside this blinkered worldview, but they're mostly unwelcome diversions. For one exception, I never though I'd hear rap music in a Woody Allen movie, but that moment — dropped casually and unexpectedly into the middle of a musical number — feels real and funny and works well in context. It's more discomfiting to see Woody wholeheartedly embracing the stereotype of the turbaned cab driver, or trotting out a bunch of little kids in ethnic outfits for a disastrous Halloween number that's basically Woody's version of the insipid Disney ride "It's a Small World After All." Woody's films always present fantasy versions of the cities they take place in, but moments like these cross the line from knowing fantasy to uncomfortable stereotypes.

Even so, the film is mostly an utter delight, a celebration and a chance for the director to stretch out in an unfamiliar style. The result is typical Woody in many ways, borrowing plot conceits from earlier films (the spying on a psychiatrist from Another Woman recast as a comedy device) and sporting many typical (and very funny) Woody one-liners like, "I haven't touched my treadmill in weeks — 572 weeks, that's 11 years." But the musical form furnishes this familiar material with a very different feel, lending the freshness of experimentation to what otherwise might've been a fairly standard film for Woody. The atmosphere of recycling especially weighs down his character Joe's romance with the improbably gorgeous Von (Julia Roberts), which seems primarily like one more excuse for Woody to pair himself with a beautiful leading lady who's way out of his league. Even the script seems to acknowledge the improbability of it all, stacking the deck in Woody's favor so that it seems inevitable that he'll land the girl. The whole thing is mostly played for a few (admittedly solid) gags, and then the whole affair just puffs away like a wisp. The film has a breeziness, aided by Lyonne's chatty narration, that occasionally does a disservice to deeper development but is otherwise the film's greatest asset. The breezy style is perfectly suited to the whirlwind romance that develops between Skylar and the crude ex-convict Charles Ferry (Tim Roth, in a hilarious bit part), who Skylar briefly believes might be her white knight. Certainly, he has a passion and spontaneity that is lacking from her fiancé Holden. When he tells her that he'd make love to her in every room of the house, on every rug and tabletop, she breathlessly deadpans, "we also have some lovely early American chandeliers." This episode is one of the film's funniest self-contained stories, a momentary diversion for some laughs (and Tim Roth's side-of-the-mouth attempt at a thug love ballad) before the film moves on.

The film is packed with such moments, and nearly everyone in the cast gets a chance to shine, even if only for the space of a few lines of song or a one-liner. One of the best gags comes late in the film, revolving around a character who is otherwise barely present in the story, Steffi and Bob's son Scott (Lukas Haas), whose inexplicable streak of conservatism in this liberal family is explained away as the result of an undiagnosed medical condition. Everyone Says I Love You is a charming, farcical ode to love, music, and the cities Woody adores — besides New York, there are loving mini-tours of Paris and Venice that foreshadow Allen's recent fascination with filming abroad. The exuberant, fluffy result is one of Allen's lightest, airiest, silliest, and most fun concoctions.

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