Films

His funny valentine

Brian D. Johnson February 3 1997
Films

His funny valentine

Brian D. Johnson February 3 1997

His funny valentine

Films

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Woody Allen has always insisted that his art does not imitate his life as crudely as people assume. But the parallels were painfully apparent in Husbands and Wives, the film released in the wake of Allen’s 1992 breakup with Mia Farrow and the scandal over his romance with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. Since then, while fighting custody battles in the courts and the media, Allen seems to have gone out of his way to make movies that do not imitate his life, or anyone else’s. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Bullets over Broadway (1994) and Mighty Aphrodite (1995) are all light farces, stylish confections with daydream plots. Freud has given way to fluff. And as an actor, Allen has resurrected his nebbish schtick as pleading self-parody, a bid to solicit nostalgia for the Woody we knew and loved, the little Tramp of his generation. It is as if Allen is dancing as fast as he can, trying his damnedest to keep the audience entertained—diverted, in every sense of the word.

EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU

Directed by Woody Allen

With his latest film, Manhattan’s directorin-residence goes further out of his way than ever before to find sweetness and light. He goes out of town, all the way to Paris and Venice. The movie’s first glimpse of Allen shows him crossing the Seine with a

baguette under his arm. The novelty of the moment is almost worth the price of admission. And as it turns out, Everyone Says I Love You is a veritable gumball machine of such moments, a movie built on novelty— not the least of which is the way its characters keep bursting into song.

Allen’s 26th film is his first musical. Thankfully, it is not a musical in the “sung-through” style of Evita, but in the nowyou-sing-it-now-you-don’t tradition of Singin’ in the Rain.

The dialogue dominates, and when someone starts crooning, it often comes as a surprise. The director did not choose his cast for their pipes. He wanted them to sound like ordinary folks with a song in their hearts, and some hearts sound better than others. Allen lets himself off easy—in a brief, weirdly intimate aside, he croons I’m Thru with Love, sotto voce, under a Venice archway.

Everyone Says I Love You is perhaps the most ambitious comedy of Allen’s career, and the most accomplished, but it is also the most evasive. Nothing seems to be at stake. The narrative covers an extended family of romantics, touching each of their lives like a stone skipping across a pond. Allen plays Joe Berlin, an expatriate New York novelist living in Paris who has just been ditched by his French girlfriend. Joe seeks out moral support from his ex-wife, Steffi (Goldie Hawn),

and her husband, Bob (Alan Alda), limousine liberals who live in Manhattan with five free-spirited children—the alarmingly neoconservative Scott (Lukas Haas), two boycrazy teenage daughters (Gaby Hoffman and Natalie Portman) who have their eyes on the same boy, and Steffi’s two daughters from her marriage to Joe, the capricious DJ (Natasha Lyonne) and the wilful Skylar (Drew Barrymore), who is engaged.

Edward Norton (the lawyer in The People vs. Larry Flynt) portrays Skylar’s compliant fiancé, Holden, with great panache, adopting the self-effacing mannerisms of a younger, more supple Woody. But with the story unfolding as a kind of romantic relay race, the baton soon gets passed to the real Woody—as Joe—who seduces a woman typically out of his league and age bracket. Visiting Joe in Venice, DJ prods her father into pursuing a young beauty named Von Qulia Roberts). And DJ arms him with strategic information about Von’s fantasies, which she learned by eavesdropping on her therapy sessions.

e In yet another subplot, Tim Roth bulls g his way through a hilariously over-the-top I performance as a rude ex-convict who seduces Skylar. But none of the relationships amounts to much. In the end, we are left with Joe and Steffi at a Marx Brothers costume ball reminiscing about better days, then slipping out for a magical last dance by the Seine.

Allen still shoots and edits with unparalleled fluidity and grace. By following the dialogue with a moving lens instead of piecing it together in the cutting room, he gives his actors a rare creative freedom that they visibly relish. This is also the most postcardpretty film that the director has ever made. When his camera is not cruising Venetian canals or ogling the Eiffel Tower, it is flashing Central Park’s spring blossoms and fall colors. The screen glows with old-fashioned opulence. And the action is paced with a series of exhilarating set pieces, from jewelry-store clerks twirling a diamond-studded skipping rope in My Baby Just Cares for Me to wheelchair acrobats performing Makin Whoopee in a hospital ward.

Everyone Says I Love You is fast, funny and painless. But all the enforced gaiety masks a hollowness at the core. Disingenuous joy keeps trampling any hint of real emotion, or meaning. Unfortunately, Allen must be measured by his own standards, and we know him all too well. There was a time when he had something to say. He used to go on about Ingmar Bergman, and even tried to imitate him—which had his fans begging him to lighten up. Now, in interviews, he talks about how he likes to drink beer and watch the Knicks. He insists he is no intellectual. He may be right. But something is wrong when you find yourself wishing, after all these years, that Woody Allen would get serious. □

Woody Allen seems to have run out of things to say