Songs From the Wood

Everyone Says I Love You

Suburban World

WOODY ALLEN HAD every right to make a neomusical called Everyone Says I Love You. He wasn't the first: Martin Scorsese (New York, New York), Francis Coppola (One From the Heart), English screenwriter Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective), and European avant-gardists Jean-Luc Godard and Chantal Akerman have already done their deconstructions of the gotta-sing myth. However (there's a civics lesson in this), along with the right to make a neomusical comes the responsibility to at least make the experiment interesting--and to reach, eventually, a point. Instead, Allen's latest is an experimental artifact that leaves his audience wondering, staring at odd fragments like archaeologists without a Rosetta stone.

Allen's fragments seem like they should mean something. The simple gimmick of having the entire cast (except for Drew Barrymore) sing in their own voices is one of them, and it nearly works. As fresh-faced Edward Norton, playing a young lawyer-in-love named Holden, sings "My Baby Just Cares for Me" in a tony jeweler's shop, the clerks tapping precisely around him, the next-door quality of his voice makes a decent and charming joke. Even though we're not all Ivy League-trained heirs from the Upper East Side, wouldn't we like to break out in a classic tune now and then?

Song can explain so much in a musical, but the songs in Everyone Says I Love You mostly say only that they exist, and that we have to pay attention to them. Allen has long been an archivist of Tin Pan Alley, yet here the old tunes don't just accompany the story, they replace Allen-esque dialogue. The story he does have--various mixed-up romances among the very, very rich (but still employed)--is so ridiculously slight that when a song enters, it's a featured distraction. The chief offender in this vein is Allen himself, who, as Joe the writer, morosely warbles "I'm Through With Love" at a window in Venice. Joe's withdrawn, navel-oriented manner implies that he's thinking about this song rather than actually feeling it, or even using it.

Body language is another of the fragmentary mysteries in this curious assemblage. Apart from Norton, only the giddy, lovestruck teenage sisters played (too fleetingly) by Natalie Portman and Gaby Hoffman, along with Tim Roth's brilliant cameo as a cartoon ex-con, seem to have a connection with their own bodies. In a musical, people should move well--either suavely or amusingly. And even if it's a neomusical, maybe a musing on the nature of musicals, people should at least look like they're involved in what's happening, rather than awkwardly waiting around for direction. This stiffness is most obvious when Joe stands around on a quay in Paris, watching as his ex-wife Steffi (Goldie Hawn) literally soars through a song-and-dance: Allen studies his fellow performer, thinking about his next steps. He's not swept up in anything but plain mechanics.

Then there's the question of Allen's whimsical casting. For years now, he's been cramming his movies with actors and friends, far too many to keep track of. Like a sharp-eyed baseball scout, he scoops up people who are currently hot for one particular reason, but then puts them in a teeny role with little useful purpose. Juliette Lewis was a weird choice as a budding writer in Husbands and Wives, while the functions of Jodie Foster and Madonna (Shadows and Fog), and Anjelica Huston (Manhattan Murder Mystery) were equally fuzzy. Here, he's wasting the energies of Portman and Hoffman, while using the cheerily earnest Lukas Haas (the little witness of Witness and the discoverer of sex in Rambling Rose) as a one-joke character, the conservative son of wealthy liberals.

The movie spends more of its time on a less-funny joke, Joe's pursuit of Von (Julia Roberts--again?!). The chase is assisted by Joe's daughter D.J. (Natasha Lyonne), who is not only the least comic person in the movie, but also serves as a sporadic and intrusive narrator. What was Allen thinking? Burdened by such weirdness, the movie's pieces don't come together into anything really whole; its ideas are alternately prosaic and moderately inspired. The entire thing is such a needless academic exercise, it's as if Allen made it to prove some arcane (and unexplained) point--as if he was up for tenure and had to publish, or perish.

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