Manhattan Melodies

In Woody's world, everyone erupts into show tunes

World governments may topple, stock markets may soar and crash, deadly viruses may mantle the globe, but one constant remains: Woody Allen still hankers for a Cole Porter-ized New York. You have to be a deep-dish romantic, or else a blinkered snoot -- or maybe both -- to persist in such a demonstration. We tend to associate the obsessions of movie directors with more lurid fare: Oliver Stone and conspiracies; Sam Peckinpah and violence; Spike Lee and race. In its own small-scale way, Allen's obsession is just as fervid: He dramatizes the lives of well-to-do Upper East Siders as melancholic extensions of the pop-show tunes of the '30s and '40s.

When his movies are really lilting along, this pop dream can seem a choice confection. When they're just getting by, you begin to resent the tony, sanitized self-infatuation of it all. Woody Allen movies work best when you're having too much fun to notice there's no garbage on the streets, no subways, no black people, no noise. You have to be a true obsessive to keep Manhattan this time-warped.

In Everyone Says I Love You, Allen keeps his warp speed constant. It's a charmingly inconsequential musical romance -- Allen's first -- with numbers drawn from Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, and many others. Not only Manhattan gets the Woodman treatment here; Venice and Paris come across as pop fantasylands, too (not much of a stretch there).

Allen plays Joe, a novelist who lives most of the year in Paris. His daughter, DJ (Natasha Lyonne), the film's narrator, is a redheaded teen who lives in Upper East Side splendor with her mother, Steffi (Goldie Hawn), stepdad Bob (Alan Alda) and Bob's children, Lane (Gaby Hoffmann), Laura (Natalie Portman) and Scott (Lukas Haas). Another stepsister, Skylar (Drew Barrymore), is engaged to Holden (Edward Norton), a milquetoast lawyer in her father's firm who begins the film serenading her along Fifth Avenue with "Just You, Just Me."

Throughout the movie Allen doesn't make a big deal about the musical conventions. He just lets the actors casually break into song and sometimes dance, and this could be off-putting for audiences who don't connect with the romantic traditions that inspire Allen. Since most of the performers, excepting Alda and Hawn, can't -- at least in any professional sense -- sing, the effect is sometimes like movie stars' amateur night.

But Allen means it this way, I think. He's after something besides homage here -- something closer, in a much more simplistic way, to what Dennis Potter achieved in The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven, or perhaps what Jacques Demy brought off in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. He's after the lift you get from pop; he wants to show how pop can turn the workaday into something romantic, even impassioned. The charming ditties and croon swoons on the soundtrack express more of these people's lives than they can express themselves. Their amateurishness is central to their appeal. It testifies to their heartfelt sincerity.

The problem with Allen's agenda is that, for the most part, the pop standards coming out of his actors' mouths don't quite jibe with their minds. The songs derive from a different era, a different mood. Norton singing "Just You, Just Me" or "My Baby Just Cares for Me" is a stunt in more ways than one: He seems cut off from his vocalizing because we can't really connect this type of music with this type of guy. (The Lettermen or the Swingle Singers would seem to be more his style.) Norton is essentially a stand-in for a junior-league Woody Allen. It's significant that Norton even acts like Allen -- he has the same flustered mannerisms and hectic line readings. Usually it's the actresses in Allen's movie -- especially Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton and Julie Hagerty -- who have been encouraged to ape him. He's branching out.

Allen is aware that the songs don't match up with the actors -- most of them, anyway. But for him this incongruity is proof of how far we have fallen. He's saying that these great old standards don't have to come to us -- we have to come to them. They're timeless, we're evanescent. Allen's nostalgia is cast-iron. And he doesn't brook competition. Despite all the teenagers in this film, we hear nothing of their music except for a swatch of rap -- inserted condescendingly, of course. It's not enough that he pays tribute to his pop inspirations -- he has to have disdain for everybody else's.

Would this film be much different without the musical numbers? Pennies from Heaven, for example, is inconceivable without its songs, even though, from a strictly narrative standpoint, it didn't need them. But Everyone Says I Love You would probably have come across in much the same way without the music -- except that the numbers italicize the tissue-paper plot and help buy it off. Without the music and dance numbers the film might seem disposable, though it kind of is anyway.

That's not all bad. Allen usually overreaches when he tries to be Ingmar Bergman -- the closer he moves from Stockholm to Tin Pan Alley, the lighter his touch. And unfettered, he pulls off some deft comedy here. When Joe takes DJ on a vacation to Venice, she spots an American, Julia Roberts's Von, who she thinks would be perfect for him. And DJ has an edge: The mother of one of her friends in New York is a psychiatrist who has been treating Von, and, for sport, the girls have been listening in on her intimacies.

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