Woody Allen (Part III)
I hope you’re enjoying my trip through a good-sized slice of Woody Allen’s work. It’s been very interesting to take such a prolific, famous artist (the likes of which I previously knew essentially nothing) and jump into his complex view of life represented across a broad range of titles. The man is known for a certain “type” of film (relationships, New York, anxiety-ridden characters, intellectual and verbal humor, philosophical pondering, simple visual schemes), and with good reason; yet, his filmography is surprisingly rather varied. Midnight in Paris (2011) is the forty-first film he directed, not including television work. He’s been working for about as long as Martin Scorsese and has an alarming twenty more films than that icon. With such an overwhelming amount of production, one is bound to have a large number of failures mixed in with complete winners. After my endeavor ends (as it should after a couple of films), I will have seen not even half (although very close to it) of Allen’s films (cue a sigh of exasperation). I have neither the desire nor a reason to watch more than that. Yet, I feel I have a nice grasp on Allen and have enjoyed some real gems in the midst of underwhelming offerings. These four films, while they display strong points, are not top-tier, in my opinion. Before you get down on Allen’s work, realize that I have seen another masterpiece and am saving a post on it for a later date. I watched most of these because of Diane Keaton, as nimble a comedic performer as she is a formidable dramatic one. Watching Allen and Keaton together is cinematic bliss, so attuned are they to each other’s skills. They fall in love in Annie Hall and Manhattan and Play it Again, Sam and Love and Death, although various factors pull them apart by each respective film’s conclusion. Only in Manhattan Murder Mystery are they allowed to enter the closing credits as a couple (but watching them become one is more enjoyable). Right now my top five looks like this (in no particular order): Annie Hall, Manhattan, Bullets Over Broadway, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). And what a five they are. I still have a couple titles to view, but for now, here’s my opinion of some less successful Allen:
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993): This isn’t considered one of Allen’s best (nor one of his worst), but it is available on Netflix, and I couldn’t resist the idea of watching Allen and Diane Keaton play a married couple, nearly twenty years after Annie Hall. The result is like watching a phoned-in sequel to a film you enjoyed: there’s a strong nostalgia factor, but an even stronger feeling of disappointment, considering the almost inevitable inability to capture the same magic twice (or three times, in the case of The Godfather, incidentally also featuring Keaton). Granted, Keaton and Allen have great chemistry, but the writer Allen gives neither of them much to do, except to perpetuate their already established filmic personalities. The film is easy to watch and generally entertaining, but it’s rarely flat-out funny. It’s nice to see Alan Alda and Angelica Huston again, but both have much less to work with than they did in Crimes and Misdemeanors. You could spend your time with less tolerable fare, but this ultimately emerges as an unnecessary film. I’ve had a soft spot for Keaton since viewing Father of the Bride (1991) as a child and Father of the Bride 2 (1995), which I remember seeing in theaters. I was wowed by her more recently in Something’s Gotta Give (2003). She’s had palpable chemistry with a number of great actors (including Al Pacino, Steve Martin, and Jack Nicholson), but I think Allen showcases her talents in the most effective way (both as a co-star and director). Even so, there are much better Allen/Keaton films out there.
Take the Money and Run (1969): I decided to check out a sample of Allen’s earlier, more overtly comic movies, and I was sorely disappointed. To call this a “film” is somewhat misleading; it’s a short, very loosely structured mockumentary about a bumbling crook. It resembles a Saturday Night Live sketch stretched thinly over an hour and a half. There seems to be about as much voice-over narration as there is spoken dialogue. While I enjoyed a few laughs, they did not come frequently enough. In my opinion, Allen excels in primarily verbal comedy as opposed to physical comedy. His Chaplinesque clumsiness wears out its welcome quickly, and most of the jokes lack the sharp intellect that Allen would later display with more subtlety. It’s hard to believe the man behind this would create Annie Hall in less than a decade, but everyone has to start somewhere. To be fair, there have been less auspicious starting points.
Play It Again, Sam (1972): This film was actually not directed by Allen, but he is the lead character and the screenwriter (he adapted it from his play). Because I wasn’t high on Take the Money and Run, I considered avoiding everything pre-Annie Hall. Yet, I checked this out mainly because it’s Diane Keaton’s first appearance on screen with Allen (her first film with Allen as director is Sleeper (1973), but from the looks of it, I imagine I would like it about as much as I did Take the Money and Run). This is more of a cohesive film than that one, and it is less reliant on physical comedy. One can certainly see the roots of Annie Hall here. Like that film, it explores the workings of a man’s mind, taking us inside his preoccupations and fantasies (one of which involves conversations with Humphrey Bogart). Here, Allen plays an awkward, anxiety-ridden character that has trouble with women. In such a role, he’s far more convincing than he is in future roles where he beds a number of beautiful women (like Deconstructing Harry). The plot is simplistic and narrow, failing to explore either the tense relationship politics or the philosophical existentialism that awaited the writer/director. While it has little more to say than “be yourself; don’t try to be something you’re not”, the film is pleasant enough and is perhaps one of Allen’s most widely relatable works. Diane Keaton is like an Annie Hall not fully formed. In the character’s wardrobe, her insecurity and anxiety, her unassuming beauty, and her visits to therapists, the seeds of the seminal Hall can be found. She’s not given an overwhelming amount to do, but she does it well; it’s great to see Allen and Keaton’s unornamented and unforced chemistry for the first time, even if it is in a film that revolves around a predictable, familiar love triangle that evokes only a small fraction of the depth that the classic containing this film’s titular quote displays. This is the nostalgic, romantic Allen, and it’s frankly much more invigorating (albeit less realistic) than some of his more cynical works that follow.
Love and Death (1975): This film can only be called an existential screwball comedy. On one hand, there’s a lot of the Chaplinesque slapstick with which Allen began his career. Allen plays a fish-out-of-water Russian soldier (with his normal, Brooklyn-accented voice) with zero combat skills. The physical humor derives from the character bumbling around on the battlefield when he’d rather be writing poetry. On the other hand, there are a great deal of philosophical discussions about the existence of God (explored more seriously in Hannah and her Sisters), the possibility of taking another human being’s life (explored more seriously in Crimes and Misdemeanors), and the ethical question of whether murdering a dictator (Napoleon) is a justified means to the end of saving thousands of lives. This aspect of the film is handled humorously as well, as characters interrupt the absurd proceedings of slapstick to spout out incomprehensible dialogue about the historically quintessential questions of mankind. The anachronistic humor (Allen’s basic, neurotic New York shtick is transplanted to a different time and place) is sometimes very funny, but many jokes simply fall flat, and again, I’m not a big fan of this type of comedy. Nearly every sentence that Allen delivers is meant to be a hilarious one-liner; with that type of proportion, you’re either in for a laugh-a-minute romp or an occasional-laugh-surrounded by stretches of silence-wondering why more jokes fail than succeed “romp.” I was more in the latter camp, but this film is not without virtue. Perhaps its greatest virtue is Diane Keaton, fair game for heavy lifting after the pretty straightforward assignment of Play it Again, Sam. She’s a delight to watch, equaling Allen in comic timing and straight-faced ridiculousness. Keaton’s most electrifying features are showcased here: a lively, quirky charm; a lack of self-conscious mechanics; a girl-next-door type of unmanufactured beauty; and an ability to play unbelievable situations with believable conviction. It’s a taste of her undeniable talent and her most successful performances to come. She delivers these lines with dead-pan virtuosity: “To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But then, one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you’re getting this down.” Love and Death didn’t entirely work for me, but it seems to be the best thing pre-Annie Hall.