Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

D: Woody Allen
S: Woody Allen, Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda, Julia Roberts

Woody Allen films have always been a matter of love them or hate them. Though he has occasionally managed to hit the right note to find popular success, his films still very much appeal to a particular and loyal core of fans and devotees. I have long been one of them. And yet, despite the technical skill with which Everyone Says I Love You has been put together, despite the presence of all the familiar Allen ingredients, including on target one-liners and a plethora of cinematic in-jokes, I found myself unable to enjoy his treatise on the film musical.

The premise of the film is that it follows the fortunes of a family who loves to sing. The actual plot is largely irrelevant, merely providing a stage on which to showcase a series of musical numbers sung and danced by professional actors with little to no singing or dancing experience. If you really care, it's actually about the pending wedding of Drew Barrymore and Edward Norton, the former the daughter of a typical Woody Allen upper-middle class New York family headed by Hawn and Alda. A sub-plot involves Allen as Hawn's ex-husband attempting to win Julia Roberts on the streets of Europe. But what each element of plot essentially provides is a setting for the action; usually romantic, always impeccably photographed and inevitably devoid of any real character beyond the superficial attractions of a studio backdrop from an MGM musical.

The problem is this: the film is so devoutly obsessed with its own intertextuality that it becomes painfully transparent. While he has gone to a good deal of trouble to cook up a script with romantic interludes and comic situations, Allen's real interest here is in replicating the mechanics of the Hollywood musical in his own particular cinematic world. The conceit of using non-singers allows him to express the essential quality of a musical (characters sing what they feel) without really providing its pleasures (a good singer is a good singer, a bad singer is a bad singer, no matter what it symbolises). Though it aspires to spontaneity, it is patently contrived, and if this is a double bluff in-joke, it doesn't work. Only the climactic scene of Hawn and Allen dancing by the Seine has the authentic elation (with knowing asides and humour) of a musical moment, and the rest is all singing all dancing emptiness.

It has plenty of evident exuberance and pleasure, but most of it doesn't really communicate to the audience. It is a curiously alienating venture, and one senses that Allen and his cast would have derived more satisfaction from it than anyone else. Its postmodernism is its ultimate undoing, proving that smug self-awareness can only create a timeliness destined to date itself quickly rather than achieve a transcendence which marks a true cinematic masterpiece.

Yet the skill and affection with which it has been put together are worthy of note, and Allen is too experienced a director to miss the target completely. It draws good performances from all concerned and it looks marvellous. There is some fun to be had with the gags, including Tim Roth's extended cameo as a freed convict bringing the latent prejudices of the liberal family to the fore. There's nothing so much wrong with the film as wrong with the enterprise in the first place. Though self-conscious musicals have long existed, and have a pedigree including The Band Wagon and Singin' in the Rain, few of them were as cerebral as this one, or as eager to include social and political issues in such a blatant manner. It aspires to innocence and subtlety, but does not achieve either. It merely presents them as concepts, like the musical numbers themselves. The result is a peculiarly cold film about human warmth which is incapable of inspiring the feelings it seems genuinely to possess at some level.

It may be a matter of taste, of course, and some will probably find themselves spellbound. But, for me at least, it is too studied a venture to be truly involving, too postmodern to be enjoyable, and just never quite achieves what it sets out to do. Sorry, Woody.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.