Everyone Says I Love You (Woody Allen)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

Inspired and exasperating in equal measure, Everyone Says I Love You -- Woody Allen's most conceptually audacious film since 1983's Zelig -- is so relentlessly charming and likable that you may not realize how awful much of it was until you're on your way home afterwards. As you've no doubt heard, it's a musical comedy of sorts, and the splashy production numbers are truly sensational; bizarre, outlandish, and unapologetically crowd-pleasing, they reminded me of moments from the Early Funny Movies...the casket dream in Love and Death, say, or the scene in the giant vegetable garden in Sleeper. Trouble is, the frame on which these delightful set pieces are mounted is a bit rickety; omit the songs (which are merely set pieces -- with few exceptions, they don't advance the plot or even reveal character) and what remains is tiresome and uninvolving and not half as funny as it ought to be. Woody's (it seems pretentious to refer to him as "Allen," for some reason) skill with dialogue seems to have atrophied; a potentially funny subplot involving Lukas Haas as an unrepentant conservative in a household of liberals, for example, falls utterly flat, because the confrontations it inspires consist entirely of tired clichés. (It's a depressing day when Woody Allen's gags seem feeble in comparison with those found on reruns of "Family Ties.") And I am the only one who's grown weary of his habit of casting familiar faces in virtually every role, no matter how insignificant? (As an aside, there are more people of color visible here than in all of Woody's previous films combined, I believe -- though, of course, they're all extras. Still, one step at a time.) Of the (too-)large ensemble cast, Goldie Hawn and Edward Norton (now winning a major critics' award near you) are the most memorable. It's the archaic genre that's the true star of Everyone Says I Love You, however, and whenever the actors stepped forward to croon a standard off-key, or obligingly attempted a little softshoe, I felt a lunatic grin spreading across my face. The film is so much nostalgic fun when it's working that it's possible -- just barely -- to overlook, or forget, how lame the "book" is. Anyone who misses the musical should run rather than walk.