Cinema: A charming ode to silly love songs

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There was a time when the quickest way to win angry glares and ostracism from middle-brow petting parties was to argue that Woody Allen's films were an embarrassing, wretchedly unfunny amalgam of self- aggrandisement and self-pity. But times have changed and so has Woody. Just as his more recent movies are unlikely to provoke zealotry (it's hard to imagine a Woodyphile staring you glassily in the eye and explaining how his life was changed by Mighty Aphrodite), they also seem to be offering ever less cause for purist spleen. All right, deep breath, let's get this over with: Woody Allen's 26th film, a musical comedy entitled Everyone Says I Love You (12) is - curses! chiz! - really quite charming.

Though not consistently so, one hastens to add. Every time the actor- writer-director shuffles on screen with his usual depressive stoop, the fizz goes out of the thing almost audibly and we're back in the swamplands of Planet Narcissus. Allen's character is a novelist, apparently successful enough to live in Paris, commute regularly to New York and stay in a swanky hotel in Venice where he woos a Tintoretto scholar, played by Julia Roberts (one for the buffs: how often has Allen cast himself as the lover of a beautiful woman?). Despite such conspicuous blessings, he spends most of his time whining and muttering his way through a litany of gripes about suicide, hypochondria, psychoanalysts and relationships like a character in an old Woody Allen film. This act of nostalgie de la boo-hoo is all the more perverse in a film which otherwise sparkles with nostalgia for the happiness of old musicals.

Calculated magic can still be rather magical at times, and the film's opening sequence is one such time. The darling buds of Central Park glisten in the spring sunshine, fountains gush and a tweedy, ingenuous young swain (Edward Norton, clearly the coming man these days) serenades his inamorata (Drew Barrymore) with an artless rendition of "Just You, Just Me", while pedestrians, pram-pushers and pan-handlers join in the chorus and the mannequins of an Yves St-Laurent window display jump to life and dance. New York as Fairyland - a seductive fantasy, particularly for anyone giddily in love and massively in the black, like the film's leading characters: Bob (Alan Alda), a wealthy, liberal lawyer; Steffi (Goldie Hawn), his bleeding-heart wife; and Djuna aka DJ (Natasha Lyonne), Steffi's daughter by her first husband (the Woody role).

This pampered set, and their assorted friends, relatives, servants and token good causes (Tim Roth is very funny as a tough, twitchily paranoid convict who steals the affections of the Barrymore character away from her less macho beau), wind their ways in and out of romantic entanglements and burst freely into orchestrated and choreographed hits from the shows: "I'm Thru With Love", "Looking at You" and the titular "Everyone Says I Love You". Allen has his actors, most of whom aren't particularly gifted vocalists, sing their own numbers, and the result can be unexpectedly touching, as if the joys and woes of love were somehow lending them a new and faltering capacity for lyricism. He has turned up one real find: Goldie Hawn has a fine voice.

Adequately beguiling as such matter is, it amounts not so much to a full- blooded musical as to a cerebral man's fond reverie about musicals: Everyone Says I Love You has some affinities with Jean-Luc Godard's radiant love- letter cum essay on the genre, Une Femme est une femme. Allen's film is neither as insouciantly brilliant nor as heartfelt as Godard's, but it has a lot more giggles, and better special effects, displayed at their wittiest in a song-and-dance number - "Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)" - staged by the ghosts who haunt a funeral parlour. The grand finale, in which Goldie Hawn dances on air by the banks of the Seine, comes precariously close to plain gimmickry, but is saved by the sheer grace of her body swaying to the music. Even the grumpiest Woodyphobe may feel a distinct lifting of the spirits. Similarly, even Spike Lee, who used to complain that the New York of Woody Allen's movies was unrecognisably pale-faced, might grin at the good-natured jibe about rap music earlier in the film: DJ falls briefly for a rapper who performs an abrasive variation on one of the recurrent show tunes, which begins with an angry bellow of "I'm thru with love and all you mother- ... " Well, you can guess the rest.

A long-time member of Spike Lee's rep company, John Turturro, turns in a typically angular, prickly performance as the hero of Tom DiCillo's Box of Moonlight (15), a new wrinkle on the well-worn comic theme of the clenched workaholic, Super-Ego hissing out of the ears, who is forced to pal up with an anarchic representative of the Id and learns to lighten up a shade. Turturro's character, an electrical engineer called Al - from A(na)l Reten- tive? - is released early from a construction project and, yielding to an uncharacteristic impulse, decides to go off on a little rural frolic. He runs into a loopy young individualist, The Kid (Sam Rockwell), whose ideology is part Thoreau, part survivalist, part Daffy Duck, and who funds his garish forest retreat - an open-sided mobile home festooned with fairy lights - by selling the garden gnomes and ceramic deer he swipes from nearby suburbs. DiCillo may have had his eye as much on Shakespeare as on screwball comedy when he came up with this slight, affable tale of spiritual transformation in the deep woods. At any rate, there's a quiet touch of the poet to many of its passages, and an uncommonly forgiving spirit which brings initially cruel jokes (generally bent on Al's humiliation) to benign punch-lines. You could say that it's a film about detours; and is well worth one.

Of the two slabs of formulaic, expensive dross on offer this week, the sillier and cheerier is Philip Noyce's The Saint (12), which has Val Kilmer in a variety of absurd disguises and unrecognisable accents in the old Roger Moore role; keen-eared audiences may detect Moore's cameo apearance on the soundtrack. Kilmer's character is a rootless, Protean, cosmopolitan thief whose aliases are all derived from the names of saints (St Polycarp of Smyrna is a disappointing absence). He is hired by a sinister Russian billionaire and would-be dictator to get hold of the formula for cold fusion. It turns out to be written on some scraps of paper, which a luscious physicist (Elisabeth Shue) hides in her bra. Of course she does.

Nothing if not hetero, the Saint becomes more interested in the other contents of that garment, and it's heigh-ho for some incomprehensible chases through the sewers of Moscow and a climactic confrontation in Red Square which proves that cold fusion looks just like an oversized Roman candle, though a Catherine wheel would surely have harmonised more nicely with all the hagiography. The most deliciously potty scene has Kilmer in Jim Morrison leather trousers and Albrecht Durer hairdo, lolling sympathetically before the Shelley memorial in Oxford.

Unfortunately, nothing remotely as bonkers happens in Eddie Murphy's new dud, Metro (18), in which he plays it fairly straight as a hostage negotiator - a reasonably promising job description that flies out of the window after the first few minutes, so that we don't have to endure a load of boring, talky stuff about psychology and tactics, but can just settle back to watch Murphy biffing and shooting and blowing people up instead. It's set in San Francisco; do you think there will be a chase involving cable cars and bouncing automobiles?

Two films by Abel Ferrara muscle on to our shores this week: The Funeral (18), a brutal period gangster film with added theological angst, and The Addiction (18), a brutal present-day vampire film, shot in black and white, with added theological angst and a side-order of Jean-Paul Sartre (its undead heroine, played by Lili Taylor, is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at NYU). The drift of these two films would appear to be that we are all mired in Original Sin, and that only fools and hypocrites deny their deep-seated im- pulse to maim, rape, kill and make pretentious low-budget films. Or something. Both efforts occasionally rise above themselves thanks to Ferrara's ability to encourage or permit strong performances from the likes of Christopher Walken, Vincent Gallo, Isabella Rossellini and Annabella Sciorra, and to the queasy tension or savage humour of some of his scenes. At one point in The Addiction, an academic cocktail party suddenly turns into a vampiric feeding frenzy worthy of George Romero at his unholy best. It reminded me of a Heidegger seminar I once attended; but that's another scenario.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.