This appeared in the January 23, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader. — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed by Albert Brooks
Written by Brooks and Monica Johnson
With Brooks, Debbie Reynolds, Rob Morrow, Lisa Kudrow, Isabel Glasser, and Peter White.
Everyone Says I Love You
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed and written by Woody Allen
With Allen, Goldie Hawn, Edward Norton, Alan Alda, Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Lukas Haas, Gaby Hoffmann, Natasha Lyonne, Natalie Portman, Tim Roth, and David Ogden Stiers.
Everyone who’s grown up with Hollywood movies has a different tolerance for their lies and comforts, their snares and temptations — and that tolerance changes as we grow older. A fantasy that’s easy to swallow when we’re young might seem pernicious after we discover its falsity, though later it may be cherished as a memento of our former innocence and capacity to believe. But for some individuals the rude awakening is so severe that it becomes impossible to encounter a particular Hollywood fantasy again without wincing. How we respond is a consequence of what Hollywood once did to our susceptibilities — whether it made our lives happier or unhappier, offered guidance or misguidance, solace or trauma. No two encounters with Hollywood myths are the same, and no evaluation of current movies harking back to those myths can be trusted entirely without reference to those earlier encounters.
How you feel about certain traditional Hollywood tropes is very much to the point when judging the latest movies of Albert Brooks and Woody Allen — the two key Jewish film poets of American neurosis, ruling the west coast and east coast as if they were separate cultural fiefdoms. This isn’t only a matter of how you respond to Debbie Reynolds in Brooks’s Mother, but how you respond to an extremely Hollywoodish happy ending — one that goes beyond the hyperbole of the Hollywood ending of Brooks’s previous movie, Defending Your Life (1991). I had no trouble at all with Reynolds — who gives what may be her best performance to date — but so much trouble with the silly ending that I emerged from the Toronto film festival screening feeling a bit cheated, asking myself if this is what it takes for Brooks to finally have a commercial hit. Three months later, looking at the film a second time, I confess it looks a lot better; like Stanley Kubrick’s films, Brooks’s invariably improve with age, even if it’s only a matter of weeks between viewings. The ending still seems like a blemish, as does the ending of Defending Your Life (though not the endings of Brooks’s first three features — Real Life, 1979; Modern Romance, 1981; Lost in America, 1985 — all of which do without big Hollywood stars). But this doesn’t matter much as long as you can buy into the Hollywood conventions; and once you do, the issues become formal rather than ideological. The excessive neatness of the finale may seem false, but moment by moment this is a movie founded on multiple truths — it’s an honest look at human behavior that demonstrates the possibility of change and growth and that prefers the collective truths of characters in relation to one another to a single viewpoint, depicting them in a realistic style that respects an audience’s intelligence.
In Everyone Says I Love You Woody Allen’s decision to resurrect a favorite genre, the musical, that Hollywood long ago abandoned, influences our responses far more than Brooks’s pie-in-the-sky ending. Judging from some reviews I’ve read, it has even encouraged some viewers to overlook an almost total absence of wit in the dialogue and an overall alienation from the human race that’s unparalleled in Allen’s work.
I can understand this willingness to overlook, because there are a few moments in Everyone Says I Love You when I share it. I wasn’t able to laugh much at the movie either time I saw it — first at a moribund critics’ screening, where my colleagues were equally sober, then at an opening-day matinee, where some people laughed. But I can say without hesitation that Allen singing the first 16 bars of “I’m Thru With Love” on the balcony of a Venice hotel suite moved me more profoundly than anything else he’s ever done. Why? Because his shakiness as a singer exposes his vulnerability in a way that all his mechanical sad-sack routines in this movie and others never do; for 16 bars we witness him walking a genuine emotional tightrope, without a net to catch him if he falls. However, if we attend to what the song and what the movie as a whole are saying, a much better title for both would be “I’m Through With Life.”
This creepy movie has got to be the best argument against becoming a millionaire I’ve ever seen, which makes it an interesting document about what part of the ruling class thinks about itself and the rest of us, but a far cry from the light soufflé it was clearly intended to be. Like the separate episodes of Four Rooms, it unwittingly reveals so many dark and ugly facets of the filmmaker’s cloistered mind that one emerges from it as if from a crypt. This isn’t only a consequence of the fear and loathing with which Allen regards the poor, the elderly, the sick, the incarcerated, and the nonwhite in our society, or of how he feels about the ethics of privacy, or of what he assumes about the lives and attitudes of his rich Upper East Side neighbors. In this characterless world of Manhattan-Venice-Paris, where love consists only of self-validation and political convictions of any kind are attributable either to hypocrisy or to a brain condition, the me-first nihilism of Allen’s worldview is finally given full exposure — and it’s a grisly sight to behold. Yet when he’s merely recalling the personal lift afforded by Hollywood musicals — especially in standards sung or danced by him, Edward Norton, and Goldie Hawn — he’s wearing his heart on his sleeve as never before. In other words, in this movie the narcissistic self-glorification and self-pity that musicals specialize in are the only emotions, apart from fear and disgust, that seem authentic.
The premises of Mother are so succinctly established at the outset that no one besides the three major characters is seen any longer than is necessary to register an essential plot point. John Henderson, a science fiction writer living in Los Angeles, is left by his second wife. After making a halfhearted attempt at dating (a hilarious sequence with Lisa Kudrow), he decides to get at the root of his failure with women by moving back in with his mother, Beatrice (Reynolds), who lives in Sausalito — despite being discouraged by her and his kid brother, Jeff (Rob Morrow, the third major character), a successful sports agent and clearly Beatrice’s favorite. (The assumption that John is “sick” and Jeff is “healthy” is merely a starting point.)
It takes almost the entire movie for John to discover why Beatrice has always resented him — a plausible enough explanation for her habit of unconsciously undermining him, even if it smacks of Freud 101. But the movie’s minimalist playing field and essence are much more involved with consequences and their nuances than causes, and it’s the banal details of everyday life and behavior that make this movie really soar. One of the first sequences shows John in his living room with the few pieces of furniture left after his wife’s departure, and the whole scene consists of him compulsively moving his one chair around the room. The movie meticulously charts the behavior of mother and son, their everyday activities, the petty irritations — most involving food, shopping, and John occupying his former bedroom — without turning it all into a matter of scoring points (though scoring points is often what John and, to a lesser extent, Beatrice focus on). Instead it’s a global view of how these two personalities coexist, physically as well as emotionally. Brooks’s observations tend to be microscopic — the film’s domestic content puts it closer to the behavioral comedy of Leo McCarey and Yasujiro Ozu than to that of Jacques Tati, though its concentration on “small” moments makes it Tati-like — and this gives Mother a conceptual and formal rigor that resists such standard critical tools as plot synopsis and psychological profile.
As with the best domestic comedy of McCarey and Ozu, script, direction, and the personalities of the actors as performers become indistinguishable, so that it becomes impossible to isolate these elements from one another. And an overall generosity toward all three major characters makes it impossible to side with one of them without also sharing the viewpoints of the other two. One sign of this generosity can be felt in Brooks’s allowing Beatrice to have a sex life; another, equally characteristic, is that he allows us to feel that Beatrice’s critique of John’s novel is simultaneously accurate and unfair. (It’s significant that we learn something about the kind of writing John does; in Everyone Says I Love You we never learn anything about what the Allen character, a novelist, writes, only about his possessions — the places where he lives and the fact that he uses a typewriter instead of a computer.)
Our perceptions of all three major characters in Mother undergo surprising and subtle shifts over the course of the movie, but the logic governing these shifts is always the logic of character, never the logic of setting up one-liners. Even if our perception of Jeff becomes tarnished over the course of the film, we never get anything like the kind of flip-flop in political convictions that the characters of Lukas Haas and Goldie Hawn go through in Allen’s movie, which turns them both into straw men. Haas, a neoconservative, is “cured” of his beliefs after it’s discovered that his brain hasn’t been getting enough oxygen; Hawn, a guilty wealthy liberal, is exposed as a fraud when her daughter falls for an ex-con she’s helped get out on parole. I must admit that before Hawn’s character is exposed I had to laugh at a camera movement that revealed the audience of her naïve penal-reform lecture to be a flock of skeptical cops. But a supposedly funny scene with the ex-con (Tim Roth) made me realize once again how completely Allen depends on Warner Brothers pictures from the 30s for his grasp of the American criminal, even those in the 90s. (Of course when Roth has to sing a romantic ballad to Barrymore, the Warners prison accent is immediately dropped.)
Brooks’s shooting style also displays an uncommon realism and critical detachment; he almost never takes away the viewers’ freedom of choice by inserting close-ups, and almost invariably gives us space and time in which to think about what’s being shown as well as suggested. Even when Brooks reaches for his outlandish happy ending he doesn’t abandon this style, so we still have options as to how we react. It’s important to realize that multiplying the viewers’ emotional and intellectual options always entails considerable commercial risk — the same kind of risk Welles took when he made The Magnificent Ambersons after Citizen Kane and allowed us to despise as well as pity his central character.
Maybe there’s a deeper humor than I’m aware of in exchanges in Everyone Says I Love You such as “Before you leave Venice your lips will be pressed to hers” and “Unfortunately I left my Chap Stick in New York.” But I doubt it. Allen has turned himself into a vending machine for such lines, much like his avowed role model Bob Hope. If you think it’s hysterical for his character to ruminate about taking the Concorde from New York to Paris so he can commit suicide by jumping off the Eiffel Tower three hours earlier, then I suppose this is the movie for you. (I was reminded of Hope’s quip at the height of our devastation of North Vietnam that we were performing a kind of slum clearance.) Where Allen differs from Hope is in the class orientation of his product placement: in Everyone Says I Love You “Concorde” functions in the same way that the character names “Holden” and “D.J.” (both taken from Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye) do — as indicators of a certain generic pedigree, like the Ritz in Paris or Yves Saint Laurent or Harry Winston in New York. Maybe if Allen enjoyed his own wealth more he’d have less need to advertise these and other nouveau riche touchstones.
There’s a very revealing statement from Allen in John Lahr’s sycophantic profile in a recent New Yorker: “When I go for a walk, I get a topic to think about, I never just go out casually. If I get into an elevator and I’m gonna go up more than three flights, or something, I’ll buy a newspaper. I can’t stand the unstimulatedness, because the anxiety sets in very quickly.” Of course if you take a look at the remarkable elevator sequence in Jerry Lewis’s The Errand Boy it’s immediately apparent that Lewis can’t enter an elevator without becoming stimulated, and the same thing obviously applies to Albert Brooks when he walks through a grocery store or mall and to Jacques Tati when he simply walks down the street. But Woody Allen walking down the street desperately needs a topic to blot out whatever he might see or hear, and his practice as a filmmaker repeatedly proves it.
Take the opening sequence of Everyone Says I Love You, which begins promisingly with Edward Norton singing “Just You, Just Me” to Drew Barrymore in front of a fountain — a moment that, apart from a graceless use of a zoom, evokes the laid-back charm of Donald O’Connor in the park with Debbie Reynolds in I Love Melvin. Then come shots of Central Park in springtime, characteristically devoid of people (the “perfect view” in an Allen movie always consists of depopulated nature), followed by Norton and Barrymore singing on the plush Upper East Side, with choral functions assumed by three nannies (one Latino, one black, one Asian) with their baby carriages, a black nurse with an old white woman, a bearded white beggar with a cup, and three mannequins in Yves Saint Laurent’s window assuming dancers’ poses while Norton and Barrymore window-shop.
All very democratic and good-natured, one might argue: rich and poor, white and nonwhite, human and mannequin unite in celebrating a young couple’s love. But Allen clearly hasn’t noticed that real Latino, black, and Asian nannies probably wouldn’t be standing together. Apparently responding to complaints about eliminating nonwhites and poor people from the streets of Manhattan in previous pictures, he’s superficially reproduced the populist feeling of the opening sequence of Love Me Tonight (evoked elsewhere by the strains of “Mimi” on the sound track), but he’s only made things worse. This process of reproducing his fear of and contempt for the people he’s portraying is even more blatant in his staging of “Makin’ Whoopie” inside a hospital corridor and in his showing us what he thinks (or, rather, doesn’t think) about a senile grandfather and a prisoner on parole. Even the “young couple in love” proves bogus, because “love” in this movie never gets beyond a consumerist notion of correct brand names (Harry Winston, Tintoretto, Groucho Marx) and “perfect views.” Julia Roberts, an unhappily married art historian, supposedly falls in love with Allen’s character because his daughter D.J., after spying on Roberts’s therapy sessions in New York, supplies him with all the right cues. The odiousness of such a scam is made to seem secondary to the conviction that love consists exclusively of feeding another person’s self-validation — a compulsive activity in Allen’s movies — and Roberts falls for it so easily she seems like a numskull.
“I’ve never felt Truth was Beauty. Never,” Lahr quotes Allen as saying. “You just get an overdose of reality, you know, and it’s a terrible thing.” Defining truth as reality and beauty as unreality (which in Allen’s terms nonsensically includes the “worlds” of Ingmar Bergman, Louis Armstrong, and the New York Knicks) seems about as limiting an artistic strategy as one could define — unless one defines art simply as an escape from reality, as Allen does. (Louis Armstrong is an escape from reality? Allen must have rocks in his head.)
Albert Brooks’s oeuvre is minuscule next to Allen’s, comprising only five features as a writer-director next to Allen’s 25 — even if these five have immeasurably more to say than Allen’s 25 — and his public profile is correspondingly less developed. I suspect this is partially a function of Brooks’s determination to deal with life in his movies — even with “real life,” to cite the title of his first feature. This requires more courage, wit, originality, and intelligence, and the results make one squirm as well as laugh, even though they don’t register as clearly or as immediately with the public. But it adds up to work that gets better all the time. If Mother has a lesson, it has nothing to do with the beauty or ugliness of truth; it’s simply that the truth will make you free. Roberto Rossellini once said of Chaplin’s A King in New York that it was the film of a free man. Mother is too. Whatever else it might be, Everyone Says I Love You is anything but.