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?
How cynical can a musical be? Director Herbert Ross and screenwriter Dennis Potter did a neat job of distilling the British TV miniseries (also written by Potter, who died last year) into the length of a U.S. feature film. Steve Martin plays Arthur Parker, an unpleasant idealist who sells sheet music (or “songs,” as he puts it) during the American Depression. When Arthur falls in love with schoolteacher Eileen (Bernadette Peters), he abandons (then returns to) his wife, who is less accommodating sexually, but does have an inheritance that Arthur wants to exploit to open a record store. In glimpses into characters’ minds, the actors dance and lip-sync with canned recordings from the era to bizarre and ironic results, as when Vernel Bagneris mouths “Pennies From Heaven” in front of a photographic blow-up of Depression-era homeless. Later, Christopher Walken (yep) puts on a show-stopping version of “Let’s Misbehave.” “I want to live in a world where the songs come true,” Arthur tells Eileen (now Lulu), in a tableaux drawn from an Edward Hopper painting. “There must be someplace where them songs are for real.” Only in your dreams.