Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You” is the filmmaker’s tip of the hat to movie romance, 1930s musicals and modern neurosis. It’s a cinematic oxymoron — complex, bold and audacious and simultaneously simple, guileless and sublime. This is that rare Allen outing that transcends his cozy niche and plays to the masses. The combination of screen smarts and a heartwarming, humorous tale should garner both a fistful of honors and provide him with his biggest hit since “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
“Everyone” is the filmmaker’s idea of a musical and, not surprisingly, his take is singular. The Manhattan setting is familiar, but when Holden (Edward Norton) looks adoringly into the eyes of Skylar (Drew Barrymore), he isn’t prone to spout poetry; rather, he croons the bygone hit “Just You, Just Me.”
Apart from an occasional curiosity piece, it’s been decades since Hollywood produced original musicals. This one embraces the spirit of Warner Bros.’ boy-woos-girl yarns that starred the likes of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. The notion may seem retro or antiquated, but Allen’s zeal to provide a modern spin, and his game, engaging cast quickly transform one’s initial shock into sheer viewing delight.
The story rather loosely hangs on the young lovers’ impending wedding. As with many of Allen’s movies, the new film has a narrator who also serves as guide, moderator and participant in the day-to-day mishigass of the privileged class. DJ (Natasha Lyonne) is Skylar’s older half-sister and, by all appearances, the least judgmental of the key characters in this crazy quilt.
Skylar’s parents — Bob (Alan Alda) and Steffi (Goldie Hawn) — are comfortable, liberal and poster candidates for nuclear family of the year. Steffi used to be married to Joe (Allen), DJ’s biological dad, who’s trying not to get involved with the wrong woman … again. There’s also her half-brother, Scott (Lukas Haas), an inexplicable conservative whose traditional attitude provides one of the biggest laughs in the picture.
The dilemmas and personal dynamics are familiar territory for anyone who has even a nodding acquaintance with the Allen oeuvre. They provide a much-needed anchor to the cat’s-cradle narrative that boldly jumps into song and jets off to France and Italy in pursuit of hopes, dreams and adventure.
“Everyone” is fascinated with life’s inevitable ironies. This is best illustrated by Steffi’s latest cause — the rehabilitation of convicted felon Charles Ferry (Tim Roth). When he’s paroled, naturally he’s invited to dinner.
The brood, affecting true liberal myopia, pretend away his rough edges. But that will rapidly evaporate when Skylar finds herself drawn to him and, at least temporarily, calls off the wedding.
Joe is caught up in an amour fou orchestrated by DJ. She decides her dad is ideally suited to the much younger, married Von (Julia Roberts), and devises an elaborate charade that unfolds with the precision and novelty of a Rube Goldberg construct.
There’s no logical reason why the filmmaker’s well-plowed turf should adapt to the musical form. But it’s obvious that he has an exceptional ear for matching vintage tunes to the emotional pitch of the script. And his instinct for the singing prowess of a cast dominated by performers with limited or no experience in the form (Alda and Hawn excepted) is uncanny.
Roberts, Roth and Allen himself aren’t about to be signed to a record label or open for Tony Bennett, but each demonstrates a pleasant way with a song. In fact, only Barrymore ultimately was dubbed by a professional.
Overall, this is one of Allen’s strongest casts. Still, Hawn is just a little brighter and more memorable than the others in the ensemble. Her climactic dance with Allen along the banks of the Seine is truly magical.
Another revelation is Norton, who has an unabashed way of selling a song and putting his heart into his dance routines, particularly a shopping-spree number set to “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”
Tech credits are pristine, with such Allen stalwarts as cameraman Carlo Di Palma and production designer Santo Loquasto rising to the unique challenges of the new outing.
The film is considerably more emotional than the director’s most recent ventures and, obviously, more physically elaborate. Yet none of the craftsmen betrays the signature simplicity that’s evolved in the filmmaker’s canon.
“Everyone Says I Love You” finds Allen in top form as a master farceur, juggling a variety of comic styles, real and fanciful narratives and honing his visual acumen to a keen edge in a work of unfettered sagacity.