These days, seeing the new Woody Allen film is a little like spending some time with an old lover. Things just haven’t worked out. Those once-charming quirks and peccadillos have grown into irritating mannerisms, and while you can’t put your finger on what’s missing, it just seems like the magic is gone. You get the feeling that the two of you have nothing left in common. But when your ex makes unexpected overtures toward seduction (say, by announcing that his new film will be a musical comedy) you’re intrigued. Stumbling toward your rendezvous, you’re shot through with anticipation as well as the fear that you’ll only be let down once again — how do you get yourself into these things, anyway?
Advance word on Everyone Says I Love You has been excellent, and it’s no wonder. The movie is a comedy starring Woody Allen, which is usually a good sign. He’s populated the project with a cast of familiar faces (Alan Alda), bright newcomers (Edward Norton), and seasoned outsiders (Goldie Hawn) who keep things moving. It’s a musical, which means he’s working familiar territory in a new way. Most of all it’s a chance for him to stretch out and have fun with some of the old songs that have always been an important part of his work.
The story is vintage Woody. Alda and Hawn play Bob and Steffi, a wealthy couple raising a family in their apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. They’re so liberal that one of the film’s best jokes revolves around son Scott (Lukas Haas), who’s lately — and to Bob’s befuddlement — turned into a young, ranting Republican. Daughter Skylar (Drew Barrymore) is engaged to the affable young Holden (Norton), but the engagement is broken off after she’s seduced on the balcony by a roguish ex-con (Tim Roth). Also in the extended family are daughters Lane (Gaby Hoffmann), Laura (Natalie Portman), and most importantly DJ (Natasha Lyonne), Steffi’s daughter from her previous marriage to Joe Berlin (Allen).
Joe now lives in Paris, and looks every bit the New Yorker abroad — we first see him walking home with a big loaf of French bread tucked under an arm. DJ visits him every August and functions rather unwholesomely as the devil whispering in his ear. When Allen eyes a pretty American woman at a Venice restaurant, DJ is flabbergasted — the woman is Von (Julia Roberts), a New Yorker on whose therapy sessions DJ has gleefully spied (a psychiatrist’s office is located next door to her family’s apartment back home, and DJ’s made a peephole). DJ knows everything about Von’s private hopes, fears, and fantasies, and begins to tutor Joe in the ways of wooing her. (I suppose it’s a weird sort of variation on Cyrano de Bergerac.)
If all this sounds unlikely, well, that goes with the territory. The question is whether it’s funny, and more often than not Woody hits his mark. The performances are mostly fine, even if the all-star casting’s a bit lazy — Alda and Hawn never really gel as a married couple, but it’s easy to believe that Alda could get along well with anybody. And when Barrymore’s genteel sexpot falls for Roth’s impenitent thug, her rather precarious sexual instincts don’t grow out of her character as scripted as easily as they spring from Barrymore’s enduring “bad girl” associations.
Julia Roberts is barely an actress here — and even less asinger — but Allen seems to have cast her because of her reputation as Hollywood’s most universally desirable dream girl (Sandra Bullock must have had a scheduling conflict). Doubtless Allen revels in portraying the unlikely sexual dynamo, but you have to wonder if he realizes that his on-screen dalliances with beautiful younger women are looking more tiresome the more he relies on them. (Yes, he takes Von to bed; yes, she loves it.) Roberts aside, the romantic comedy involves younger and younger girls — cheerfully insensitive to any alleged Lolita complex, Allen has his child actresses portray incorrigible, indecisive flirts.
Peepholes and all, the film’s more unsavory impulses are redeemed by a remarkable sweetness. When a little smile plays on Norton’s face in the movie’s opening scene and he starts to croon “Just You, Just Me,” we’re suddenly in the hands of a filmmaker who has chosen to upend prevailing wisdom by making the kind of movie they don’t make anymore. The unabashed sentimentality of the music fuels some marvelously unpretentious imagery — the mannequins at Yves St. Laurent come to life, a conga line of ghosts belts out “It’s Later Than You Think” at the funeral home, a bunch of Parisians dressed up as Groucho Marx perform “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” in French.
Stubbornly, Woody’s still trying to reclaim some sense of the cinema that used to be — remember the Hollywood he chased after in The Purple Rose of Cairo, the Sweden he made clumsy passes at in Interiors, and the Manhattan he very nearly willed into being in Manhattan? The search pays off in Everyone Says I Love You, where, refreshingly, he finds himself by aping nobody. Each scene, every musical number just bubbles along merrily, engaging its audience without straining to impress. His restraint finally pays off in the penultimate scene, when Joe and Steffi find themselves at the banks of the Seine and … well, you’ll see.
I’ll just say that we learn, as we always do, that the ensemble cast, the quirky characters, and the outlandish situations are all just a ruse to convince us that this movie really isn’t about Woody Allen. Not “Joe Paris” but “Woody Allen” — the director himself is the subject of his best films. The first glimmer of real feeling in Everyone Says I Love You comes when Woody, alone in the frame, begins crooning — almost at a whisper — “I’m Thru With Love.” At that moment, he’s an absolute charmer. It feels right, not because of what we’re told about the character, but because of our intimate acquaintance with the artist —- the writer, the performer, the director, and that attendant raft of neuroses.
After a series of duds and diverting misfires, Woody’s finally managed to re-invent himself in a picture that draws from his own history more than it deviates from it. Everyone Says I Love You is funny, poignant and awkward in the proper measures. It’s fueled by the careful performances of an expert ensemble, and it’s wise enough to know when to quit. At its best, when Woody dances with the ghost of movies past, it’s even magical.