Whine, Women, and Song

Woody Allen’s musical.

Everyone Says I Love You

Directed by Woody Allen


Early in Woody Allen’s new movie, Everyone Says I Love You, members of a typical Upper East Side family (typical, that is, for a Woody Allen movie) sit around a funeral parlor in front of their late Grandpa’s bier, assuaging their grief with some typically Woody Allenish philosophizing on the subject of life and death. Bob, the father (Alan Alda), blurts out that he never believed in God, even as a child. If God did exist, he’s done such a terrible job it is a wonder everyone hasn’t filed a giant class-action suit against him. This sparks a shouting match with Bob’s son Scott (Lukas Haas), who has lately joined the College Republicans and taken up the cause of school prayer. Chaos ensues.

Suddenly, Grandpa’s ghost rises from its coffin and recites the first verse of a song, “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think),” whereupon the ghosts of other funeral-home corpses rise up to join him in a rollicking song-and-dance number, complete with conga line and cartwheeling cadavers, as the mourners romp in the background.

If anything can capture the exuberance of Allen’s 26th film and first musical, that scene is it. Allen’s less-successful films have suffered from the tiresome repetition of big existential questions, but the entirely successful Everyone Says I Love You brings to bear on those annoying Big Questions some of his most hilarious writing in years. This is due, in large part, to the inspired choice of genre: Allen uses music to pierce through his neurotic characters’ defensive postures, self-delusions, and rationalizations. EveryoneSays I Love You is what ordinary life would be like if ordinary people routinely erupted into song whenever their ordinary psychological torment became too much for them to bear.

T he plot is confusing. As in many Allen films, the script veers erratically among major and minor plot lines without establishing any regular rhythm. Allen plays Joe Berlin, a middling novelist and self-styled Hemingwayesque expatriate who lives in Paris and is unusually (though platonically) intimate with his ex-wife, Steffi (Goldie Hawn). A limousine liberal with family money and a misplaced faith in human nature, Steffi has now married Bob, an attorney, creating a Brady Bunch-style brood of half- and step-siblings, all with minicrises of their own.

Just about every one of these crises is romantic. Teen-agers and middle-agers alike struggle to find not just love but perfect, flawless, storybook love. Skylar (Drew Barrymore), Bob’s daughter from a prior marriage, breaks off her engagement for a fling with a brutal convict whose release from prison Steffi has helped secure. (The romance collapses when a date to see the autumn foliage turns out to be a prison-break-cum-grocery-store-heist.) Joe and Steffi’s daughter, DJ (Natasha Lyonne), falls head over heels for one dreamboat after another: a Venetian gondolier, a rapper, a guy she meets at the airport baggage carousel.

DJ, however, is no naif. Most of her energies go toward helping her lonely father find a mate. As father and daughter vacation in Venice, DJ recognizes Von (Julia Roberts) as the art-history professor whose therapy sessions she has been regularly spying on, by way of a peephole in her best friend’s living-room wall. Privy to Von’s deepest secrets, DJ feeds them to Joe so he can seduce this beautiful, brainy woman. She, stunned at the seemingly fortuitous discovery of a perfect soul mate–one who even claims to vacation in Bora Bora, her favorite spot–leaves her husband in New York City and joins Joe in Paris. He, having sworn that, like her, he prefers antique typewriters to word processors, rushes to trade in his computer.

Allen has long populated his films with strong women characters–think of Diane Keaton or Dianne Wiest–and Hawn may be his most charismatic leading lady yet. Her comic timing is better than Keaton’s or Mia Farrow’s, and she is able to portray a friendship with her ex without resorting to cheap flirtation. In DJ, Allen offers something even rarer: a strong girl character. Lyonne plays DJ without a hint of the sentimentality we’ve come to expect from a story of a teen-age girl’s first love. Even when she recounts a series of absurd infatuations, she carries it off with style. She encourages and abets her father’s amatory pursuits, confidently tutoring him in a crash course on Tintoretto so he can dazzle Von hours later at the Scuola di San Rocco.

One of the main differences between a great comic director such as Allen and a good but run-of-the-mill one such as, say, Rob Reiner, is that the humor of the latter, while funny, is almost purely verbal, a series of one-liners. Allen, on the other hand, never passes up a chance to pull off a visual or an aural gag. The opening scenes of this film feature the symphonic strains of “Just You, Just Me,” performed by Dick Hyman and the New York Studio Players; the rendition soon changes to an elegant violin-and-piano combination, as we visit one of Steffi’s “chic soirees.” Only after much suspense does Carlo Di Palma’s patiently panning camera reveal to us that the violinist is none other than Itzhak Perlman, playing himself.

Above all, it is the music that makes Everyone Says I Love You such a joy. Ever since Manhattan, Allen has used his favorite jazz and pop standards as his signature, like Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos. But Everyone Says I Love You makes it clear that these songs are more than pleasant accompaniment for Allen. Like Freudian jokes or dreams, they’re unpredictable and spontaneous–windows flung open onto characters’ deepest feelings. In one scene, store-window mannequins dance to “Just You, Just Me.” In another, a turbaned cab driver breaks out into a Hindi version of “Cuddle Up a Little Closer.” Song is the great equalizer, cutting across lines of age, class, and rank; it serves the healthy and the crippled, the refined and the ill-mannered, the living and the dead.

O f course, unlike the cast, we who live real lives can’t burst into song whenever emotion overcomes us–especially not with a crack chorus of dancers to back us up. Allen administers this lesson through the story of Von: At first, Joe fulfills her every fantasy. “This is out of my dream,” she says when she sees his garret in Montmartre, where he’s just moved, anticipating her arrival. But, a few months later, she’s dissatisfied. Having had her dreams come true, she explains to Joe, she no longer needs them. Now, it’s reality she craves.

Crestfallen, Joe announces to Bob, Steffi, and the kids (all gathered, conveniently, for Christmas in Paris) that he’s struck out in love for the last time. A flu-stricken Bob urges him to accompany Steffi and the kids to a film-institute benefit honoring the Marx Brothers. (The dress is black tie, mustache, eyebrows, and cigar.) In a scene reminiscent of the ending to Hannah and Her Sisters, in which a despondent Allen revives himself with a matinee of Duck Soup, Joe and Steffi watch a dozen Grouchos–wearing, by turns, nightcaps, mortarboards, and pith helmets, cavorting to “Hooray for Captain Spalding,” a tune from Animal Crackers.

If reality lets us down, Allen seems to be saying, we’ll always have the movies. Indeed, Everyone Says I Love You almost feels like a metamovie–the kind of romantic comedy the ur-Allen character would really like to lose himself in. So we have rapturous montages of New York, Paris, and Venice; high-spirited choreography; all Allen’s favorite songs; and even a demonstration of what has to be, for Woody, among the most satisfying of facts: He can do a wicked imitation of Groucho.