Anything But Love (2003)

[4 December 2003]

By Sharon Mizota

Anywhere But Here

We all need a little break from reality now and then. Movies traditionally provide such escape, and no genre is more escapist than the musical, where spectacular song and dance numbers offer breaks from the rest of the film. More than plot or character development, it is this balance of the quotidian and the fantastic that propels a musical.

So, it’s not surprising that Anything But Love, touted as a “new musical romance for the 21st century,” has a hackneyed plot and one-dimensional characters. After all, classic Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and Guys and Dolls have simple story lines and cartoonish characters. But they also possess a few important elements that Anything But Love is sorely missing: music, for one, and good writing, and, that ineffable “magic.”

Anything But Love is the story of Billie Golden (Isabel Rose), an aspiring cabaret singer obsessed with the Golden Age of Hollywood. She’s serenading senior citizens in an airport bar and living at home with her alcoholic mother (Alix Korey) when she runs into Greg Ellenbogen (Cameron Bancroft), an old high school crush who is now a wealthy corporate lawyer. A predictable love triangle ensues when she begins taking piano lessons from Elliot Shepard (Andrew McCarthy, in the film’s most appealing performance—imagine that!), a cranky, tortured artist who encourages her to “find herself” through music. You can probably guess what happens next.

For a musical about a musician, the film is oddly unmusical. That usual seesaw between the talking parts and the singing/dancing parts is almost non-existent. Anything But Love features only three “fantasy” musical sequences, only one of which—a makeover scene—even comes close to re-creating the snappy, glittering charm of a vintage musical. Most of the music is built into the storyline in rather lackluster on-stage performances; Eartha Kitt’s all-too-brief cabaret number is the sole bright spot.

The dearth of full-on musical numbers in Anything But Love means that it relies more heavily on “the talking parts,” which sadly, range from clichéd to clunky. Rose’s portrayal of Billie is earnest, if a bit flat; she’s too subdued to support the quirkiness of Billie’s vintage dresses and anachronistic hairdos. As Greg, Bancroft takes his one-dimensional character a little too literally, imbuing him with all the charm of a cardboard box. And despite the fact that Andrew McCarthy still does the best “I’m madly in love with you” stare in the business, even he can’t achieve the necessary charisma to make us want to believe in true love, and then take us along for the ride.

It’s not surprising then, that the film’s most effective sequence involves neither musical performance nor dialogue. It’s a montage of scenes (set to music) narrating the growing familiarity and affection between Billie and Elliott. Heads bent together at a piano, perched above the pre-September 11th skyline in a spacious white studio, for those scant seconds they inhabit a world apart from the rest of the film. Although itself a cliché, the montage possesses a simplicity and unselfconsciousness that provides a brief window on the charm and romance that the film so desperately seeks to evoke.

Indeed, aspiration is the only thing Anything But Love has plenty of. Dubbed the “anti-indie indie,” one senses that if it had the means, it would be a retro Hollywood blockbuster, à la 2002’s Chicago. The fact that it refuses to resort to irony or camp is refreshing. But unlike indie films that wear their low-rent ingenuity on their sleeves, it plays the wallflower, too ashamed of its shabby dress to sashay into the light. As a result, it evokes not the heyday of Hollywood musicals so much as a heartfelt, but frustrated desire to emulate them.

In one musical number, Greg recognizes Billie in a hotel bar and follows her into an empty ballroom where she stands alone in a spotlight, lost in reverie. As they renew their acquaintance, the conversation snaps into a dance. It’s Billie’s fantasy: a swooning, swelling, today-my-prince-has-come celebration, but the camerawork feels self-conscious, too concerned with hiding what appears to be a lack of dancing skill. After some leaden ballroom moves, Billie dances away from Greg, into the background, her movement partially obscured behind columns. In the foreground, we see only the back of Greg’s head as he tracks her progress around the room. The scene ends abruptly with her posing on a balcony while he gazes up at her.

Instead of turning the actors loose—even as poor dancers, they might have mustered a sense of connection—the scene substitutes awkward choreography and cinematography that prevent us from fully entering into Billie’s fantasy world. Neither a touching, intimate moment, nor a large-scale spectacle, the scene feels clipped and tentative, a sensation that recurs throughout the film as it continually reins itself in just short of delight.

Anything But Love is so concerned with reproducing the style of the archetypal musical that it neglects the basic human emotions that anchor it. It seems to think that by merely referring to a swoon, it can make the audience feel it, too. Lacking the means to produce a truly opulent and distracting spectacle, and failing to tug on the more affordable heartstrings, Anything But Love occupies an in-between space that is unsatisfying on both counts.

It’s tempting to conclude that a bigger budget and a little more glitz would have made all the difference, but Dancer in the Dark (2000), also a musical about a woman fascinated with Hollywood musicals, proves otherwise. Selma (Björk) uses music to temper the drudgery of her factory job and the knowledge that she will soon be too blind to work. In a fantasy factory scene, machine sounds coalesce into a rhythm that goads the workers into an ecstatic, celebratory song and dance number. The grittiness of the factory floor and the workers’ garb remains the same, but the pure joy of their performance shines through the drab setting, throwing into high relief the fact that the sequence is fully a figment of Selma’s imagination. Shot on digital video, Dancer in the Dark is a low-budget, contemporary musical that is not only unafraid to be a musical, it also transforms the genre.

The musical sequences in Dancer in the Dark take us out of ourselves for a moment and then plop us right back down into the most heart-wrenching of stories, with hardly any fanfare. Music is both escape from and part of everyday life, providing both comfort and catharsis. Anything But Love gestures towards this undulation of fantasy and reality, but ultimately leaves us yearning for an intensity, musical or otherwise, that never quite arrives.

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