Sing a song of escapism

Everyone Says I Love You Woody Allen (12)
A man and a woman dance by the Seine. The woman soars, she swoops - yes, she flies. It's Goldie Hawn on a wire in a lovely moment from Woody Allen's new film - one that pushes the conventions to the edge of parody but then stops right there. It's always been clear from the soundtracks on his films that Allen loves the music he grew up to, but until Everyone Says I Love You, he has shown no fondness for musicals as a genre. And even after the film is over, it's possible to wonder how deep his interest runs, or if he's simply borrowing a device to spice up an old formula, as he did with Greek tragedy for Mighty Aphrodite.

Immediately after the trademark white-on-black credits, a guitar plays a chord and a young man (Edward Norton) launches into song. We hear a charmingly weak voice (Allen didn't tell the actors auditioning that they would be expected to sing), rendering a song from an extinct tradition, while his girlfriend (Drew Barrymore) listens in awkward rapture. Non- fans of the Broadway show and its posh parent, the opera, complain that it's unnatural for people to sing out their feelings and predicaments, but it may be that the screen musical has a slightly different problem, exemplified by this sequence. In the absence of a live audience, the singer can't sing directly at us, and it's actually easier to accept the bursting into song than the rapt listening - the secondary performer pretending to be audience, face held in a continuous reaction-shot of suspended surprise and pleasure.

Where there is song, sooner or later, there is likely to be dance. The film contains a handful of fully-fledged production numbers, the best of which is probably the first, where the young man goes to a jewellers to buy a ring. It's partly that there is some real energy on the screen, with one dancer doing some virtuoso skipping with a rope of gems, and partly that there's an element of a fond critique of the form. Sometimes we hear untrained voices in musicals, but we never see amateurish dancing - except that here we do, with a young man slipping off a table in mid- routine, ousted and virtually squashed by the professionals.

It would be misleading to think of Everyone Says I Love You as a sort of drastic reworking of the genre we associate with Dennis Potter (there's a hospital dance sequence here that can't compete with memories of The Singing Detective). For every piece of wry realism, there's an unabashed resort to escapism: the family whose romantic entanglement the film follows is non-standard, in the sense of being extended, including stepfathers and half-sisters, but reassuringly rich, able to spend every Christmas in Paris - at the Ritz! - without any special feeling of splurging.

From time to time, a theme appears to trouble the liberal plutocratic dream. Bob (Alan Alda) is a lifelong Democrat, so how come his son suddenly starts to mouth reactionary politics at the dinner table? Bob's wife, Steffi (Hawn), has campaigned to have a criminal released from jail (Tim Roth providing an intense and funny turn), but doesn't she have a right to draw a line when her daughter starts dating him? These themes, though, are cleared up by the writer's say-so, not developed with any sophistication. It's perfectly possible, of course, that Woody Allen has lost interest in hypocrisy as a subject, now that, in some quarters, he has become a symbol for it.

Of course, it is naive to identify Woody Allen with his screen characters, but it is a naivete that was encouraged by him at the time of Annie Hall and audiences who make the confusion are actually paying him a compliment. Take away the supposed confessional element and a number of films might seem not only slight but repetitive. Allen shows an unusual combination of artistic traits, by being both narrow and prolific, which means he has given the world a lot of opportunity to find the limitations of his visions.

If all the films were run together, they would hardly justify a group title like "Portrait of New York" or even "The Continuing Story of Modern Male Neurosis". It isn't hard to make Central Park in Spring look romantic (the new film adds two more sure-fire cities, Paris and Venice), but what about the social canvas? Allen's characters have always been able to count on three square meals a day, and also the no-less-vital three therapy sessions a week. In Everyone Says I Love You, cultural diversity runs only as far as a turbaned taxi driver singing briefly in Hindi and a few seconds of a rap group in concert. New York City isn't exactly a place where black and gay people hide themselves away, but you'd hardly know it from Woody Allen's films. Perhaps it isn't only the musical that is a highly artificial form, but Allen's particular blend of romanticism, therapy, middle-brow comedy and undemanding art film.

But if the view outwards is restricted how about the view inward? The role that Allen has written for himself on this occasion is Steffi's ex- husband Joe, a writer attracted to unsuitable women. Allen may be a good director of actors, but he can't do much with himself. In scenes with Alda and Hawn, he shows a stand-up comic's body language and self-presentation after all these years, while they are fluent and natural.

When his daughter (Natasha Lyonne) eavesdrops on a beautiful young woman's therapy session - a plot device, incidentally recycled from Another Woman - Joe is enabled to establish a manipulative rapport with her. Von (Julia Roberts) comes to see him as the fulfilment of her romantic fantasies.

If, say, Vanessa Redgrave had a screen affair with Brad Pitt, the question of relative age would not be passed over in reverent silence as it is in this case, not only by friends and family, but by therapy professionals. May-to-September romances are the only unconventional arrangements visible in Allen's films (as long as a woman plays the springtime role), but no one even notices anymore. In early Woody Allen, he was neurotic and didn't get the girl (Tony Roberts got the girls.) In middle Allen, he got a girl as neurotic as him (Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters) or was neurotic about getting a young girl who wasn't even neurotic (the ending of Manhattan). Now he gets the perfect woman by deceit, and she only shows she's neurotic by leaving him. Because Allen's manner is so consistent, it's a delayed shock to realise that his character feels no moral scruples about the deception - he only kvetches because it fails in the end. Once upon a time a Woody Allen persona without scruples would have seemed an absurd contradiction. Maybe that's the last sly pseudo-autobiographical message he has left for his audiences to read - that guilt loses its kick when the world expects you feel it n

On release from tomorrow