Everyone Says I Love You

My Crummy Valentine

Tom Keogh

Toward the end of Woody Allen's lovely 1986 Hannah And Her Sisters, Allen's character -- a television producer who left the business to pursue an increasingly desperate search for meaning in the universe -- tells his future wife (Dianne Wiest) how his spirits were saved after a failed brush with suicide. He stumbled into a movie theater that happened to be playing the Marx Brothers' transcendently anarchic Duck Soup.

As Allen tells Wiest of his Marxist epiphany -- that life, perhaps, is worth the effort because joy is always a distinct if unpredictable possibility -- we see clips of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo running amok through Duck Soup's mad cosmos. It is nearly impossible not to be moved by the juxtaposition of the Marx Brothers' inspired pandemonium with Allen's description of his return from the brink and his restoration of faith in the world. The seamless marriage of Duck Soup's footage with Hannah's makes for an emotional union of image and interior life altogether poignant and not the least bit jarring.

A decade later in Everyone Says I Love You, Allen is attempting another marriage of Marxian abandonment with his mature resignation to the way life catches all of us up in a maze of hope, love, and confusion. This time, however, it's nearly impossible to know what the hell Allen's thinking of: Everyone Says registers little emotion and is certainly among the most maddening of the star-director's more overthought and underfelt experiments.

It's also an embarrassment. No actual footage of the real Marx Brothers finds its way into the new film, but the comedy team's spirit (and sometimes likeness) becomes a jumping-off point for Allen's stylistic adventures in unfettered extroversion. (One way to view Everyone Says is that it is a movie by an intellectual who -- shudder -- has decided to work hard at being playful.)

On paper, the film looks like, well, a Woody Allen movie: Allen plays Joe, a mediocre novelist living in Paris and seemingly unable to maintain a relationship with any woman for long. His ex-wife, Steffi (Goldie Hawn) is a privileged Manhattanite whose second marriage to an attorney, Bob (Alan Alda), affords her the opportunity to be a busy if ditzy champion of the usual aristocratic causes, e.g., freeing death row inmates who were abused as children. Steffi's teen daughter by Joe lives in a bustling, merged family situation with Bob's kids, one of whom, Scott (Lukas Haas), is a budding Gingrichian who sputters in fury at welfare and gun control. A daughter, Skylar (Drew Barrymore), is engaged to the warm and sweet-natured Holden (Edward Norton, continually stoking those memories of a young James Stewart).

A dozen story strands weave a complicated plot in which characters fall in and out of love, are tricked into intimacy, seduced by a thrill, or made nostalgic by the memory of an imperfect love that was love all the same. Joe cons the unhappily-married Von (Julia Roberts) into believing he is the fulfillment of her dreams, only to see where dreams lead in the real world. Skylar becomes suddenly uncertain of Holden's capacity to thrill her after she meets Steffi's bad-boy paroled killer (Tim Roth). Bob and Steffi's young daughter, Laura (Natalie Portman), experiences her first broken heart and is soon crooning the same Gus Kahn-Matt Malneck-Fud Livington tune, "I'm Thru With Love," that almost every other character in the film sings at one time or another.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter. Narratively and comically, much of Everyone Says I Love You is vintage Allen. Cinematically, it is Allen in desperate need of some heightened check-and-balance component in his creative process. The film is another of those sort-of-but-not-really-musicals -- way, way over the line even from what James Brooks attempted but abandoned a few years ago with I'll Do Anything. You could easily see those scenes in Brooks' film where emotion was supposed to swell into song but then didn't (the musical numbers were cut.) But Everyone Says does not hold back -- Allen treats singing by the likes of such non-singers as himself, Roberts, Alda, Barrymore, Norton, etc., as an extension of his and their characters' inner voices of doubt and vulnerability.

Which is a great idea, of course, but it's an idea acquired from some outside inspiration (most of Allen's cinematic ideas are) and it works about as well as being forced to listen to anyone who can't sing try to convey what they truly feel. Allen is operating in a realm of theory that tells him wisdom derived from pain and translated into comedy can sustain further translation into a new, more arcane film vocabulary that allows for cheesy song-and-dance numbers in hospital corridors, jewelry shops, and on the banks of the Seine. It is a theory that tells him there is something to be gained by putting a wire on Goldie Hawn and making her fly like Peter Pan. It tells him it's okay to put Edward Norton in the middle of a dance set when the guy can't move. It convinces him that his own, almost shocking playfulness at impersonating Groucho Marx is not just a random gag but somehow meshes nicely with the intricacies of an ensemble love story.

And, you know, once upon a time in Allen's career, such a gag would have done exactly that. But it's been a long time since Allen's whimsy have really worked: 1990's Alice was too precious by half and the Greek chorus set pieces in 1995's Mighty Aphrodite were irritating at best. If Everyone Says is the current state of the old-style "fun Woody" that detractors have been bitching about missing since Manhattan, I'd rather watch September a few dozen times. If Everyone Says is a stylistic hybrid of the outre Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) and the sensitive Manhattan Murder Mystery, I suggest amputating one from the other. Because Everyone Says I Love You doesn't have the nearly the liberating impact of one honk on Harpo Marx's horn and it is hardly a sustained testament to the mysterious rhythms of love over the long haul.