|Subject:||Everyone Says" Review (long)|
|From:||"John D. Baldwin" <email@example.com>|
|Organization:||Paloma Film Projects|
Please note that I am going to "give away" certain details of the new movie's plot in this message. This, of course, doesn't matter a bit. The plot of this film is nothing, the style is everything and the work has to be experienced for itself. Anyone who would be deterred from seeing the movie because he/she "already knew all about it" from reading this post doesn't deserve the movie, IMHO.
First of all, it should be noted that, no matter what else may be said about the movie, it will *not* be remembered as a big-time director's folly, like Bogdanovich's At Long Last Love or Coppola's One From the Heart. It will probably be said that, with a cast without "real" singing voices (except Goldie Hawn's), Allen has made a picture which perfectly captures the light buoyant tone of the great 30's and 40's musicals. Is it Woody's best movie ever, as Roger Ebert suggests? No way! But it is a triumph for Woody, his first picture in many a moon that stands a chance at capturing the mass movie audience.
I think Woody has succeeded where others have failed because he did not neglect his writing to focus on the music. In fact, the opposite is true; his comic sense is as sharp as ever. The main plot deals with a very happy and very rich Upper East Side New York family. The wife, Steffi (Goldie), who was born into wealth, is literally a "limousine liberal" who is fighting for prison reform: she thinks convicts should be given the right to redecorate their cells. The husband, Bob (Alan Alda), is a lawyer and also a liberal, who is disgusted by the right-wing conservative views of his son, Scott (Lukas Haas). The grandfather is a senile old coot who is always threatening to go out to attend a baseball game at the (long-destroyed) Polo Grounds. The German maid, who may once have worked for Hitler, refuses to serve sauce with the pasta, because, according to her, "it is Bavarian pasta and doesn't need sauce; the Italians used sauce because they were *weak*." Steffi's eldest daughter, the smart but fickle DJ (Natasha Lyonne) was actually sired by Joe Berlin (Woody), Steffi's first husband. Steffi's three daughters by her marriage to Bob are Skylar (Drew Barrymore), who is engaged to Holden (Edward Norton), and the teenagers Laura (Natalie Portman) and Lane (Gaby Hoffman).
The great thing about the movie is the way it turns trite situations into great fresh comedy. For instance, Holden, in a restaurant with Skylar, puts the new engagement ring he is about to present to her on top of the dessert as a romantic gesture. Of course, in time-honored fashion, she swallows the thing when his attention is distracted and has to be rushed to the hospital. In the next shot, we see the ring in the girl's stomach X-ray and all the nurses are gathering round to admire the ring in the X-ray! This leads to a full-scale musical number where nurses, a bandaged man, three pregnant women and an escaped inmate in a strait jacket all dance in the hospital corridor, singing "Makin' Whoopee!"
The movie continually shuttles back and forth between the deliberately preposterous but sweet world of an old Hollywood musical and Allen's satirical take on the contemporary upper classes. There's a wonderful scene when Steffi brings home for dinner a paroled convict, Charles Ferry (Tim Roth), whose cause she had championed. Within two minutes, he has groped, flirted with or insulted every female in the house. (Roth's comic timing is priceless in this scene.) Later, when Skylar finds herself trapped in the getaway car of some thugs who have robbed a candy store, she imperiously demands "drop me off on the corner of 98th and Park!" One of the funniest gags occurs when the family discovers the true reason for Scott's fanatical Republicanism: a blocked artery in the brain. But the main reason why the material works is that, no matter how foolish these people are, we *like* them and are entertained by their antics.
By contrast, the subplot involving Joe's courtship of the unhappily married Von (Julia Roberts) is less successful. By coincidence, DJ has been listening in on Von's therapy sessions and knows everything about her. She passes this knowledge on to her father, Joe, while all three are vacationing in Venice. The jokes come from Joe's attempts to pretend to be the dream man about whom she has been fantasizing. These scenes are sometimes amusing, but (IMO) somewhat labored and unconvincing, partly because of Roberts, who has lost most of the allure she used to have. I can't totally blame her, though, because she is forced to play romantic scenes opposite a man who's pushing sixty. The sad fact is that Woody is simply too old to be doing this kind of thing anymore. Worse, for the first time in his career, Allen deliberately invites the audience to feel sorry for him, playing the romantic loser without his usual irony.
Another intriguing thing about the film is Woody's focus on the sexuality of very young female characters. All four daughters in the family are boy-crazy and hot as pistols. The scene where Charles Ferry tries to seduce Skylar is particularly sexy, though nobody takes their clothes off (one can see Barrymore's nipples quite clearly, though, through her dress). For someone like Woody who has been suspected of pedophilia, this strikes me as rather brave (or foolhardy, depending on your point-of-view).
The two best scenes, however, occur near the very end. Joe and Steffi are at a Marx Brothers costume party in Paris and, wearing Groucho mustaches, they charmingly banter for about ten minutes. (This scene seems to have been mostly ad-libbed.) It's a delight to see Goldie and Woody together: their chemistry is amazing and totally unexpected. Better yet is the climactic scene when Joe and Steffi sing and dance to I'm Through With Love beside the Seine. Goldie's voice is very good (the best in the movie) and she really puts her heart and soul into the song. Then, when she breaks into a dance, she literally floats through the air. This gimmick may sound tacky, but on the screen the effect of it is magical. Like many of the musical numbers in the film, this one got warm applause from the audience.
All in all, a joy to watch. As 1996 was not exactly a banner year for movies, ESILY could easily pick up a nomination for the Best Picture Oscar (though, being a musical, it doesn't stand a chance in hell of winning). Hawn may win for Best Actress, though her part seems a bit thin. The film is more entertaining than Allen's last few pictures. However, I definitely would not consider it among his very best. I don't have an absolute favorite Woody Allen picture: he is, for me, much too versatile for that. However, for the record, these are my choices for the best in several "categories":
|Funniest Comedy||Love and Death|
|Most Visually Beautiful||Manhattan|
|Best Fantasy||Purple Rose of Cairo|
|Most Dramatically Powerful||Crimes and Misdemeanors|
|Most Entertaining Overall||Tie: Manhattan and Hannah|
ESILY is not in this league. The narrative has a lot of loose ends. For example, the character of Holden, prominent in the first half of the film, virtually disappears from the second half. There is a subplot about Lane and Laura competing for a handsome rich boy, which Allen abruptly sets up and just as quickly drops. Some of the musical numbers don't really work. A few of Allen's jokes fall flat. Roberts, as mentioned, is embarrassingly weak and her singing is really bad. (It's terrifying to think how bad Barrymore's singing must have been, if Allen dubbed her but let Roberts sing in her own voice).
On a personal level, I have some additional reservations. In the early 1970's, when I was going to college and saw Bananas and Sleeper and Love and Death, Woody Allen seemed hipper than hip. His outlook and attitudes were very contemporary, and thus very appealing to my generation. But increasingly in his movies, Allen seems lost in a retro time warp. His obsession with songs and movies from an era which seemed ancient to me even when I was a kid is rather disturbing to me. Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives are the only recent films he's made which truly deal with the real world. I loved ESILY but I dread the thought that he may spend the rest of his career making this kind of lighthearted fantasy movie. However, I realize that others on this newsgroup might feel differently.
Overall, ESILY is a must-see for anybody who can even think of calling himself/herself a Woody Allen fan. The movie's limited run in New York and L.A. will end in a week, but it will reopen (I think) in January.
"I know this sounds daft, Eileen, but I want to live in a world..." "...where the songs come true."
Pennies From Heaven