With just so much work in his catalog, it’s easy to be intimidated by Woody Allen’s lesser-known films. After cycling through the hits, you find his grooves and rhythms, the styles most fitting to your tastes. Allen detractors posit his successes are short-lived, tracked via a good film/bad film schedule reset every two years. Cynically, this might keep you from a few extra hours on the couch, but it’s a cold approach to a director with still so much to say, fifty full years into his career. With this dismissive attitude, sometimes Allen’s work goes ignored. There are a handful of forgotten films in his oeuvre we could discuss*, all inventive and clever as his biggest hits, but for now let’s focus on Everyone Says I Love You, a film nominated for an Oscar upon its release (!), but rarely mentioned in retrospectives.
The premise is straightforward: an upper-crust family in NYC experiences the ups and downs of love. We see first romances, with all of its missteps (Edward Norton and Drew Barrymore), flings guaranteed to burn out as quickly as they began (Allen and Julia Roberts) and, finally, life-long ruminations of love long lost (Allen, Hawn and a bunch of ghosts). The whole piece is narrated by Allen and Hawn’s daughter DJ, played by Orange is the New Black‘s Natasha Lyonne. Allen, handling multiple plots deftly, jumps between perspectives and cities, including NYC, Venice and Paris. New partners are won over, lost and replaced by paroled murderers (Tim Roth). Oh, and the whole thing is cast as a musical, sung live by actors not known for their registers. Previously unfulfilled dreams of Alan Alda crooning Cole Porter tunes finally — at last — come alive.
Here’s what’s great about Everyone Says I Love You. Allen takes something he loves deeply — the American songbook — and gleefully rips it open, allowing his characters to express themselves not through dialogue, but songs and well-worn standards. You want to doubt it at the first, music-laden frames. You expect these now-cliche songs to overpower their purpose in the film, trite tunes embarrassingly dug up. However, Allen delivers the opposite: what should be a straightforward and cliched tale of romantic longing, but with song, becomes rich and full of emotion. The cast finds earnest, honest conviction in their songs.
Watch an exuberant Norton belt out “My Baby Just Cares For Me” while jewelers and models dance around him joyfully at Harry Winston. Or, in a more nonsensical moment, see pregnant women and burn victims (!) blaze through “Makin’ Whoopie” in a hospital ward. Allen is at his best, his most buoyant and carefree, when he visits the things he loves the most: jazz (Sweet and Lowdown), radio (Radio Days) and cinema itself (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Stardust Memories). His best films are almost baptized in the life-giving spirit these joys bring us. I suspect this is because, to Allen, that’s all there is in life. In his recent Esquire interview, he stated:
“It’s just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don’t have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we’re just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything that you value, whether it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci, or whatever, will be gone. The earth will be gone. The sun will be gone. There’ll be nothing. The best you can do to get through life is distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the key is to distract yourself.”
However temporary the feelings, Allen believes these songs express what we experience in life’s banality better than we can attempt. It’s hard, even exasperating, to express coherently what a messy and emotional breakup can do to you. But “I’m Through With Love”? The song gets to the point with a simple and stark lyric: “Said adieu to love / Don’t ever call again.” Nat King Cole summed up all the frustrations and dashed hopes in life long before you experienced them. Here, a young Natalie Portman blurts the song’s opening out angrily, cursing her failed adolescent love. Later, near the finale, Goldie Hawn revives it, a remorseful rendition along the banks of the Seine.
Allen has a exhaustive knowledge and understanding of the power of standards and why we canonize them. Their charm lies in both the simplicity and universality of their lyrics. What was true to the lyric then stays true, even in its vague and general tone. It’s not nostalgia, though, not a sentimental and saccharine paint job on the past. There’s no horseshit “those were the days” feelings at work. Allen loves these songs and wants us to relish them as well, crafting a musical with the same spirit found in Rodgers and Hammerstein or Fred and Ginger.
There’s a late scene, shot at a Marx Brothers-themed costume party, that sufficiently expounds Allen’s essence here, blending music, film, dance and comically large cigars. It’s one of those prime moments in cinema, the type that give you goosebumps as you see something so perfect, yet undefinable, play out on screen. Hawn and Allen discuss their relationship and love for each other, but then get lost riffing on their Groucho-fied appearances. The comedy in their situation takes over. The smile on Allen’s face is apparent, even beneath his Groucho glasses: this is it, this is what matters here.
*Most notably, after a recent re-watch, Small Time Crooks. Elaine May and Woody Allen together? A meeting of the gods.