Coming on the heels of one of cinema’s greatest filmic runs, Allen’s next decade has disappointed many viewers. In some ways they are, of course, perfectly right. 1992’s Husbands and Wives would never be equaled, even as there were many other excellent and interesting films that could be appreciated on their own terms. This is the typical arc of so many artists, and is not unique to Woody. And yet, what is unique to him -- at least in some ways -- is how prolific he’s been, even in his ‘waning’ years, and how good some of this material really is. This is, at its core, an experimental period, and is richer than was once thought, even as it is an offshoot of (and diversion from) what had come before.
Thus, Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) is a good way to kick things off, for it captures much of the experimentation and oddities that would mark Allen’s films of the 1990's. Yes, it is a great deal lighter than Woody Allen’s best material, but is also a bit deeper than it’s been given credit for (especially by Allen himself), as well as being very well-made from a purely technical point of view. The characters all fulfill a bigger function that only we are aware of: to further elucidate Carol Lipton (Diane Keaton), Larry Lipton’s (Woody Allen) growingly neurotic wife. In fact, it is really her film, with much of the action, curiously, seen halfway through her eyes, and halfway through the viewer’s, and given the amount of overlap, it is sometimes impossible to tell the difference. This ambiguity lends heft to what might otherwise be a rote and silly detective story. Released to good critical acclaim, part of its polish, perhaps, is due to the fact that Annie Hall was originally written as a murder mystery along this vein. In fact, the film has often been criticized for being too close to Annie Hall in some ways, but while that earlier work dealt with relationships and the deeper implications therein, Manhattan Murder Mystery is more plot-driven, and revolves around the potentially troubled psyche of just one person. Even if the charge were true, however, it would also be quite irrelevant, for Woody Allen plays similar characters throughout most of his films, and the key question ought to be whether or not they are fully-realized and work for the narrative, not whether they’ve been ‘somewhere else’ in art. In some ways, then, one learns much about the arts by reading such reviews, focusing, as they do, on the wrong things, and implicitly pointing out some new directions for the viewer to follow, and those to avoid.
1994’s Bullets Over Broadway is one of Woody’s most critically-acclaimed films, and for good reason. Despite being a ‘mere’ comedy, it shows precisely the kind of depth possible in the genre, not by sacrificing laughs, but through excellent characterization, good visuals, and a terrific script. David (John Cusack), a struggling playwright, is very much a ‘Woody’ character, shopping around his recent play only to face rejection. It’s an interesting touch, for the more we learn of David, the clearer it becomes that he’s talentless, just like Isaac Davis in Manhattan, both Lester and Cliff Stern in Crimes and Misdemeanors, the two painters in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, or (possibly) Renata in Interiors; characters that, without fail, have been interpreted to be true ‘artists’ by critics and viewers alike, despite much evidence to the contrary. David is not, then, some tortured genius, but merely tortured, and it is his immaturity about these facts that drives the film and leads to some of the more ironic conversations that ‘artsy’ characters have had in Allen’s films. For instance, when David, his girlfriend Ellen (Mary-Louise Parker), and a few friends sit around and discuss art, they fall back on banalities such as ‘no compromise,’ or how stupid most people’s tastes and critical judgments really are, which, while true, just as easily applies to them, in ways they simply cannot see. So when David gets his big break after a Mob guy (Nick Valenti) agrees to fund his play, only to strong-arm his ditzy, annoying girlfriend, Olive (Jennifer Tilly), into a big part, he feels like a “sellout,” a “whore,” screams into an open window, and throws Ellen into a fright. But does he even have any work to legitimately feel protective of? Sure, he acts like a child, but there’s so little pay-off, for he either does not ‘get’ his own lack of talent, or does, but simply does not care, choosing to foist bad works upon the world for reasons of pure vanity. In fact, it’s likely a bit of both, and even as his friends continue to justify ‘artistic’ selfishness (“the artist creates his own moral universe,”, as to infidelity), quote Karl Marx, and pretentiously equate sex with “economics,” David grows up, gets better, and is able to live out a full life, rather than a life of mere delusion.
The film has been praised all around, but especially for the performance of Dianne Wiest, who plays an over-the-top that truly shows what ‘that’ personality is like. Others have called it a tale about show business politics, and that’s true. The film reveals back-patting, corruptions, hacks who somehow ‘make it,’ and true talents -- like Cheech (Chazz Palminteri) -- who, for some reason or other, simply do not, while everyone else prospers. It is especially interesting to cast Cheech as the true artist, as it merely shows how tangential David’s books, plays, ‘intellectual’ conversations, and the like, are to genuine wisdom. David, however, finds that such things elude him until the film’s end, where he finally realizes that he’s not an artist. Yet this is wisdom, too, and a point that more people ought to consider, artist or not. David does not get what he’s always wanted. In fact, his worst fears -- that he’s a phony -- are merely confirmed. But so what? He gets something even better: the truth, which he needs, as well as the ability to live with it.
But if the above two films were pure successes, then 1994’s Don’t Drink the Water was surely an ‘attempt’ -- but of what (and why!), it is hard to say, for it is so light and unambitious that it has little reason to exist except to satisfy Woody’s need to improve an already-obscure work that was almost three decades old. It is a television remake of Howard Morris’s 1969 film of the same name, which was in turn based on an even earlier Woody Allen play. In some ways, then, one not only sees its age, but also its made-for-TV status: a joke-by-joke narrative on the one hand, and some bad casting decisions, flat jokes, and lots of predictability on the other. Coming off the heels of two very successful comedies, Don’t Drink the Water proves how important it is to have good source material first, before it ever gets filled out.
By contrast, Mighty Aphrodite (1995) is an excellent comedy that has Woody step outside some of his comforts and try new things. It’s been praised both for its excellent performances as well as its experimentation: a playfulness, in fact, that defines many of Woody’s films, yet is even more developed here. One of Woody’s biggest departures is in the use of dumb ‘street’ characters, as opposed to his more typical ‘upper crust’ types and intellectual poseurs, in some of the film's better scenes, proving that Woody Allen could even do Scorsese’s off-the-cuff dialogue between characters who simply don’t know the import of their own words, but press on, anyway. This is especially true in scenes between Kevin (Michael Rapaport) and Linda (Mira Sorvino), who flirt without really knowing how, and fall in love without knowing why. The film also uses a Greek chorus, down to the masks and costume, presaging 1996’s musical, even as the music here is often better used, and at times downright poetic. This is especially obvious when the chorus, in the midst of song, predicts things that simply never happen, thus inverting a classic trope without ever forcing it. Such touches also provide a running commentary on the film’s narrative, gently poking fun of Greek melodrama, while rattling off some memorable lines. This gives Mighty Aphrodite an ‘over-voice’ whose lack of subtlety is all the better, for it skewers the very things that should be obvious to Lenny (Woody Allen), but aren’t, as he (apparently) heads down a path of self-destruction that the Greeks only pretend to see. Finally, there’s the casting of a bombshell, via Mira Sorvino, who not only propels individual scenes by her quirks, but also serves as the de facto start to Allen’s ‘odder’ period (to put it mildly), wherein a series of improbable women all lust after the aging comedian, which is not only played for its comic effect, but also its unreality.
One of the film’s more interesting sequences is near the end, when Linda starts to date Kevin, and where this leads. After much back-and-forth, the two finally meet, and the Greek chorus follows them in the background, prophesying love, in one of the best choreographed moments that Woody has ever done. It is surprising, but poetic too, given how false this prophecy is (a trope within the film at large). In a fine scene, Kevin and Linda sit at a restaurant and talk, at times really ‘getting’ each other, at other times not, for they don’t truly know what to express, or how. In a great little digression, Kevin tells Linda of a “dream” he has, wherein he’s picked up by an eagle, flown around the world, and dropped in the Arctic, naked, in the snow. It’s a comic touch, but also a serious one, as the viewer could tell Kevin finds this really meaningful, but doesn’t know why, and simply cannot express it in a meaningful way. It’s a Scorsese-like touch that, while not sustained, nonetheless shows Allen trying to work outside of his own material and succeeding, while Rapaport and Sorvino are exemplars of ‘naturalism’ and seemingly improv dialogue, without ever being boring or anomic.
At first glance, it might be tempting to put Everyone Says I Love You (1996) into the category of ‘miss,’ for, at least on paper, there are problems. Characters are mostly one-note, they do not develop in any truly deep way, the visuals ‘seem’ to be cliches, deep interactions are sparse, the film’s music merely re-uses some classics, now woven into a narrative, and the actors use their own singing voices, for good or ill. On the other hand, it is a musical, wherein lightness is practically a trope, cliches are paramount (even if nigh-elided or inverted, as they are here), and the actors’ own singing is, if nothing else, a means to further characterize them. On the negative side, not everyone can sing well, and this has obvious drawbacks. Woody Allen’s quick rendition of I’m Through with Love is done almost via whisper, and is more odd than endearing, while Julia Roberts’s performance is among the film’s weakest. On the positive side, however, this puts characters ‘into’ the film in a way that most films of this type cannot, and makes issues of character and narrative arc all the less important. Basically, this is not great cinema. Yet despite the fact that it approaches triteness at times, it knows how to step away from this, too, with enough humor and Allen-like ‘twists’ on the musical genre to make it significantly better than average.
Of course, the visuals are well done, too, as per virtually any Woody film, such as the ‘hockey’ scene, wherein the maid and the two youngest kids play around against the backdrop of black and white tiles, as Skylar’s (Drew Barrymore) marriage plans come undone. Or when three or four characters sing the title line of I’m Through with Love, adding their own appropriate twist, thus tying them together. Or when Skylar’s new boyfriend takes her through a beautiful autumn forest, only to then drag her to a robbery and car chase, thus setting up the viewer’s expectations, only to subvert them. Or the shots of Central Park in the snow, rivaling similar shots in other Allen films. Or Joe’s (Woody Allen) ‘reminiscence’ with his ex-wife by a Parisian bridge, as the two figures are accompanied by lights on the water, matching their own distance and length. (Can we put to rest the oft-repeated, ridiculous idea that Woody Allen is somehow ‘non-visual’ in his art?) Yet the film’s best scene is the break-up between Joe and Von (Julia Roberts), as she practically looks ‘suffocated’ by her own colors, gelling, as they are, with those of Joe’s apartment and the gray outdoors, and Von reveals that he was more or less a “fantasy” for her, while Joe’s face is visible only via profile, his eyes obscured by his own glasses. It approaches a seriousness the rest of the film lacks, and upon re-watch, one sees how often these colors are associated with Allen’s character, over and over again, as he ultimately becomes the film’s perpetual ‘loser,’ damned to repeat his choices and his ill luck no matter what might come his way.
Yet if Everyone Says I Love You was well-liked for the reasons above, Deconstructing Harry (1997) was loathed by critics, and is only enjoying some more popularity now. Given what we know of Woody’s oeuvre, however, the savaging seems over the top, as it’s not too different from the rest of his films, at least in its individual parts. Isaac Davis (Manhattan), for instance, is manipulative and ‘plays God’ despite some great flaws, Sweet and Lowdown features a pimp, user, and anti-hero for a protagonist, Match Point deals with an utter sociopath with no redeeming qualities, and Blue Jasmine has one of the bleakest endings of any Woody film. All four were well-received, however, and Deconstructing Harry was not. Sure, critics have complained that Harry (Woody Allen) is not relatable, but this is not necessary for a character to be well-sketched, or to be part of a greater and interesting whole. He is, for instance, a bad writer masquerading as a good writer (one story calls an Asian hooker “an Oriental passport to paradise”; another regales with cliches such as, “he was hovering between life and death”), but just as in, say, Interiors, it is not reality the matters, but others’ perceptions of it. Harry is successful, for one, and can afford to dick around and make enemies, but because he’s a misanthrope and downright loathsome, he is not, as others have complained, a true stand-in for Allen himself, but really his own character.
After fifteen or so years, then, Deconstructing Harry has comfortably settled amongst Allen’s ‘better’ works -- not great, mind you, not something from the Golden Age, but merely among the better films, especially when compared to some of the lesser works after it. Some critics have attempted to separate Harry and Allen, to good effect, while others conflate the two, even as their own characterizations of Harry -- pill-popper, alcoholic, sex-obsessed, and immature in both his art and life -- show why such conflations are wrong. Others have thought the film to be quite angry and unpleasant, but this is only half-true. Sure, Harry’s former friends start to turn on him, but given that he is an utter sociopath from beginning to end, this obviates any purpose in the viewer criticizing him, as the film already does that quite a bit. Nor is Harry himself at all angry, since he appears, at least on some level, to enjoy his life and the destruction he causes. Despite some obvious flaws, such as the gimmicky jump-cuts which merely (and excessively) recapitulate the film’s tone and themes, the lack of realism in a woman like Fay (Elisabeth Shue) falling in love with a loser like Harry, or the fact that there are few, if any, defining moments for Allen’s character, there’s quite a bit going for it, too. There are memorable scenes, such as the first meeting between Shue and Billy Crystal, wherein it’s quite obvious the two are better suited for one another, and lines that really stick out, fully characterizing all involved. “I’ll never be the writer you are,” Billy Crystal tells Harry. “I know that. You put art into your work. I put it into my life.” It features, too, one of the best ‘maddening’ exchanges I’ve ever witnessed between two characters, wherein Harry tries to ‘explain’ his infidelity to his wife, in ways that are both perfectly logical, as well as completely irrelevant. Anyone who’s been at a loss for words over such a ridiculous line of argument knows how well it’s been captured here, for this is Harry Block to a T, an entity others love to hate, like Allen, yet not being Allen gives critics, paradoxically, something to talk about. It begs the question, then, of what’s really being discussed, when it’s not art, and not even the man.
Although it’s unpopular to say so, Celebrity (1998) is not only a very good film, but one of the best films of Woody’s post-Golden Age, easily falling in the top third or so of his career. It’s full of terrific writing, terrific visuals, poetic moments, ‘defining’ moments, and excellent acting all around, despite the odd claims that Kenneth Branagh does a ‘bad’ Woody Allen impression, or that the film is unfunny, or otherwise minor and easily dismissed. In fact, not only can it be considered a lesser reworking of Stardust Memories (down to the black and white cinematography), as it covers a few similar themes, but it is Kenneth Branagh’s sheer presence (not ‘performance’) that helps it go. In short, while Sandy Bates was self-actualized and whole, dealing with damaged people, Celebrity’s Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) and Robin Simon (Judy Davis) are damaged people -- perhaps equally so -- dealing with other damaged people from beginning to end. In short, the film’s bite is obvious not only in how the ‘big’ celebrities, themselves, are skewered, whether it’s a pretentious painter, self-stereotyping models, or Donald Trump, who makes fun of himself in a cameo, but the two mains characters as well, who deal with their new lives in ways that are superficially apart, yet much closer than they think.
Given its cinematography, the film has a dream-like quality that nicely recapitulates its themes, a few stand-out sequences (such as the restaurant scene between Branagh and Ryder as they flirt, only to be obscured by others; Branagh’s class reunion, wherein he impotently wishes to be someone else), and a strong ending that belies most viewers’ interpretations of Robin’s character, if only it is examined more closely. For instance, at one point, Robin informs that she’s “become the kind of woman I’ve always hated. But I’m happier.” This is a critical line, as it captures not only Robin’s own arc, but much of what is felt within the film, probing, as it does, the question of happiness vs. need, or joy vs. what is ‘good.’ Yes, Robin is happier, and in many respects is probably better off having divorced Lee and quit her job as a schoolteacher, but does ‘happier’ necessarily mean ‘better’? Not always, as Robin is also using words she’s once hated (“marvelous,” for instance, as Lee points out), and doing superficial things, and has, more or less, either become someone contrary to her inner nature, or has simply embraced it. Either way, one is hard-pressed to say Robin is completely better, given her admitted lack of self-respect now, which, despite the patina of confidence she’s been provided, is still there, and speaks to problems that she’s unable to truly get a hold on. No, this does not make her a bad person, merely one that’s not much of an improvement over Lee who, while a selfish loser, stayed true to this fact from beginning to end, while Robin started off weak but good, and grew into a person that she herself cannot truly respect. There is happiness in life, yes, and it’s not a bad goal, as far as such things go. But there’s also wisdom, and purpose, and the Socratic ‘good,’ which is much more rarely seen as life’s object, despite it having a longevity and selflessness that happiness does not.
But while Celebrity is much better than suggested, Sweet and Lowdown (1999) is Woody’s most underrated film since Another Woman. The film’s structure is reminiscent of other Woody mockumentaries, with a primary narrative enhanced by the existence of a voice-over and ‘talking heads,’ lending some mythos to the man at its center: Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), a 1930's guitarist second only to Django Reinhardt, a reality Emmet not only admits, but is deeply affected by. In fact, one of the film’s chief successes (and novelties) is how it manages to make a deeply comic, exaggerated, and downright dislikable character into a thing of sympathy, or at least give him an emotional core. After all, Emmet is not a ‘good guy’ as evidenced by his treatment of Hattie (Samantha Morton), his cowardice, and all-around irresponsibility. And yet, he is not a true villain, either, as he is so naive, child-like, and utterly clueless of the world around him, given his little to no sense of self, despite Hattie -- poor, mute, talentless, and superficially weak -- being his foil in these regards in not only what she lacks, but also in what she has, and he doesn’t.
This is evident at the film’s start, wherein Woody Allen (another talking head) calls him “pathetic,” as we hear stories of Emmet’s fainting when face-to-face with Django Reinhardt (his idol and perceived superior), pimping out women, drinking, and being stuck in debt. Yet his music has a strong emotional drive, sounding quite unlike his ‘exterior’ personality, which implies a depth underneath that the viewer wishes to see. It is a manipulation, and a good one at that, for it subverts character in a way reminiscent of Alex’s ‘turn’ in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, where the villain becomes hero simply by being given some humanity. No, it is not as deep here, but it is still a clever touch. Then, in some of the film’s running gags (if they can be called that), Emmet is seen stealing a worthless ashtray, “shooting rats” (literally), or “watching trains” (again, literally), activities that are for some reason important to him, as he truly ‘gets into’ such, but can never explain why. This further characterizes him as child-like, for despite not seeming to get much benefit from these hobbies (women, for example, hate “shooting rats”), he is pulled by them regardless, for reasons that are simply beyond him. Although some might dismiss these as throwaway details, they in fact help characterize Emmet as a real human being, at least deserving of our listening, despite his boorish nature.
These are some of the film’s accomplishments, and they’ve been well-regarded, boasting a solid 78% on the RottenTomatoes website, with lots of recent, even more positive discussions and reviews online. The reasons for this are many. It is, for one, a film based on an old script, The Jazz Baby, written during Allen’s early comedic run, which was rejected for its bleakness. It has been reworked quite a bit, however, and one must marvel at how lucky Allen was for being rejected then. No, it probably wasn’t a bad film, but after thirty years, Allen developed a nuance in his scripting and visuals that would have been made Sweet and Lowdown’s character arcs impossible. Others, however, complain of these very things, with some -- like with Take the Money and Run before it -- even taking on the film’s mockumentary style, as if it simply feels tacked-on at the last minute, or Emmet’s ‘cruelty’. But while the central character might be cruel, in some ways, this is as irrelevant as Alex’s cruelty in A Clockwork Orange, for the point is how a seemingly dislikable man can be forced onto a viewer’s good side. It also makes little sense praise the film’s characters (as most reviewers do), then complain the mockumentary style is not prominent enough, for a great character like Emmet obviates the very need for this. Sure, Zelig’s complete unreality and rather thin story greatly benefited from the film’s structure, but Sweet and Lowdown, for the most part, is linear precisely because the characters are so strong, and the narrative merely ‘flows’ out of them. Put, say, Hattie into a room with an agitated Emmet, give her a present she’s wrapped for Emmet’s birthday, and simply maintain their character quirks and emotions, and you’ll naturally have your story right there -- or rather, a chunk of it, via one of the film’s best scenes, supported by other chunks in consistent, dependent, and self-referential ways.
Small Time Crooks (2000) is, like The Front before it, Woody Allen cast into yet another alternate universe, wherein -- as if things had been just slightly different for the ‘Woody’ persona -- Allen plays Ray, an utter do-nothing schnook with a shady past and plans to ‘make it big’. His wife, Frenchy (Tracey Ullman), is an ex-stripper who gives him tough love and nags him to be more responsible, while his friends Denny (Michael Rapaport) and Tommy (Tony Darrow) are even more stupid than he is, and see Ray as the de facto ‘brain’. They hit upon a scheme to rob a bank by drilling under it, and fail, while Frenchy’s ‘front’ (a cookie bakery) skyrockets, making everyone involved rich. As she gets famous and becomes, for lack of a better word, tacky, the film gently pokes fun of her nouveau riche attitude, and her utter lack of self-awareness vis-a-vis Ray’s own contentment. After a while, then, the two characters are not merely there to execute some joke, but behave as real people would, dealing with something quite extraneous to them, thus disconnecting from the jokes, even as the film never truly leaves them.
There are some wonderful touches throughout, such as a shot of the couple arguing, while Frenchy’s nose is covered with a blackhead remover; documentary-like interviews of those involved in the franchise, including Ray’s friends, as well as Frenchy (who is not the CEO, in yet another trope inversion), who is quickly becoming something she will only loathe. But one of the film’s funniest moments, by far, is when Michael Rapaport’s character gets interviewed, and -- unable to deal with fame and his own lack of confidence -- merely nods with a frozen smile while continuously glancing over to the camera, then going on about “Pablo’s theory” (he means Pavlov) re: his marketing strategy of placing cookie ads in pornographic magazines. Meanwhile, David (Hugh Grant) is a character that, far from being a one-note villain, slowly ‘turns’ to evil only when it becomes profitable to do so, thus playing on the viewer’s expectations in ways that are not always obvious. The film’s visuals are stellar, at times, and include a wonderful shot of Ray against a Brooklyn sunset as the couple’s laundry blows in the wind (thus implicitly characterizing their home life), or -- near the film’s end -- a shot of Ray in his new home, wearing a white suit and being surrounded by gauche decor, painting him almost as a clown in a ridiculous alternate universe that he simply does not understand. In short, the film is not ‘merely’ about a bank robbery, but about characters, how they interact, and what they mean, above all, to each other, and to themselves, as one can only look at a person like Frenchy and cringe. No, it is not some deep character study, nor are the gags, themselves, on the level of, say, Love and Death from twenty-five years earlier, but the narrative is stronger, and the characters better, as they are more or less real.
But while Small Time Crooks was well-received, probably due to the fact that it satisfies on multiple ‘accessible’ levels, it is still a mystery why The Curse of the Jade Scorpion was so reviled. Sure, it’s a notch or so below its predecessor, but it’s often just as funny and well-written, with some of the best (and most frequent) one-liners since 1975’s Love and Death. In fact, as of 2014, it is one of Allen’s last good comedies, with Scoop (2006) and perhaps a couple of others surpassing it, at least in terms of humor. The film’s real problem is not so much its comedy, but that it is all surface. While Small Time Crooks had light, almost farcical commentary on people’s pretenses to ‘higher’ things, plus a few stand-out visuals, and Love and Death had its allusive qualities to fall back on, Jade Scorpion merely has its jokes and plot machinations which, while enjoyable, cannot sustain a film too deeply. It’s been praised for its genre straddling (that of film noir, detective tales, and the like), but also criticized for the very things inherent to those genres, such as its pulpish script. Yet, at their best, characters rarely speak more than a short sentence at a time, with virtually every line being quite witty, to-the-point, and quotable in the more memorable exchanges. This is, in fact, the definition of good writing, even if doesn’t get one too far. In other words, while it is true that Woody has had a couple of failures, this is simply not one of those films, and anyone who derides it too much (or, by contrast, over-praises it) is simply not being realistic in terms of the utter nadirs most comedies hit, or the highs they are sometimes capable of.
Hollywood Ending (2002) and Anything Else (2003) can be taken together as mild failures for reasons that have been obvious to most viewers. The earlier film follows Val (Woody Allen), an out-of-work filmmaker who, like Alfie (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) after him, and Isaac Davis (Manhattan) before him, decides to go for a young, callow type, with Val even offering his talentless lover a part in a new movie, only to lose his eyesight right before he’s set to direct it. Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs), in Anything Else, seems to love the abuse showered upon him by his girlfriend, Amanda (Christina Ricci), much like Isaac via Mary, or Sandy Bates (Stardust Memories) via Dorrie, or Gabe (Husbands and Wives) via three separate women, and even divorces his first wife -- quite reminiscent, in fact, of Stardust’s Isobel -- for the selfish, imbalanced Amanda. Jerry is also a comedy writer with a talent manager, whom he eventually leaves after gaining some success, a la Lou Canova (Broadway Danny Rose), and Val, after an inexplicable divorce, decides to get back with his wife, like Alice’s lover in Alice.
Now, the fact that I’ve already mentioned so many titles is not a good sign, for when a filmmaker borrows so heavily from himself, and not from one film, but many, it is already a kind of pastiche, which usually has an artistic ceiling hard to break (see Shadows and Fog). The problem with both films, however, is not so much in the borrowings themselves, but how pale they are, for they do little that is new, and little that is particularly well-executed. In Anything Else, for instance, Jason Biggs plays the ‘Woody’ persona, but, oddly, Woody Allen himself has a big role as Jerry’s mentor. Side-by-side, then, one sees an excellent comic actor -- albeit in his waning years -- and a mediocrity, whose artsy, ‘intellectual’ persona is simply not suited for him. (Can you imagine Jason Biggs, of American Pie, saying that he wishes to write of “man’s fate in the empty universe; no God, no hope, just human suffering and loneliness”? He does.) Ricci, however, plays up to the ‘crazy, needy, unstable’ stereotype in a way that is too over-the-top to ever take seriously, making her own role a bit more difficult to criticize. This doesn’t make her character good, however, only self-consciously difficult, for she is still a stereotype to the very end. In many ways, then, the film is a lesser re-tread of much earlier work, thus presaging the sorts of issues that would follow Woody Allen for much of his late career.
Meanwhile, Hollywood Ending’s critical ‘incident’ -- Val’s psychosomatic blindness, resolved at film’s end -- is so unrealistic as to be utterly dependent on its own lack of believability for the ‘gag’ effect. In this way, the film becomes subsumed under the gag, itself, which precludes any probing, character development, or anything deeper, really, than a few jokes, or a few wan, implicit comments in regard to intellectual posturing, and the like. Yes, such commentary does exist, but being so buried in an otherwise flat narrative borders on irrelevance, and obviates any claims for anything deeper. Val, for instance, rides off with his ex-wife, happy that his bad, blindly-produced film is gaining a cult following in France, echoing Woody’s comments re: pseudo-intellectuals not only in print, but in films, as well, including subtle disses in (and around) the Godard-directed Meetin’ WA and King Lear, in which he had roles. Yet, as Walter Chaw writes, this feels especially contrived, mostly because there is so little of Val and Ellie (Tea Leoni) that is real, nor any reason for them to have broken up, nor -- even worse -- any reason for them to get back together. Indeed, the one true ‘bonding’ moment that the two share involves Ellie tucking in her ex-husband into bed, yet given the disparity in their ages, behaviors, and looks, it looks more like a daughter tucking in her father, rather than anything truly romantic. The film, then, feels unnatural, with such arcs merely tacked-on, as if to give an illusion of heft where there really is none.
If the above two films are rather flat, then Melinda and Melinda (2004) is, if nothing else, a true ‘attempt,’ and one that I’d argue is a mildly good success, to boot. It tells the tale of Melinda (Radha Mitchell), twice, once as a comedy, then again as a drama, as part of a conceit that begins with a dinner at a restaurant, wherein two writers argue about the superiority of either the comic or dramatic modes. It’s an interesting idea partly due to the fact that Woody himself already knows the answer to the film’s original question, but entertains both possibilities anyway, thus enhancing both sides in the process. Yes, it’s obvious at film’s end that the ‘comic’ side has been supplanted by the tragic. But it’s not merely that one is light, or doesn’t get as much screen time. It is also that one is being driven by the other, with ‘comic’ Melinda meeting a black pianist, like Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose import is not so much sketched in that scene, but in the prior ones with Ellis, for they, too, have a mutual essence. Hobie (Will Ferrell) is crushed by this, but it plays like a mere prelude to the ‘dramatic’ end, as Ellis’s infidelity (as well as her inability to get her children back) leads to yet another breakdown. This is very well shot, as the two of them walk down a staircase, quite apart, only accompanied by shadows. It is not, alas, Winona Ryder (as Mitchell’s role originally cast), but the film is absolutely no worse for it, as their respective acting strengths might have enhanced or detracted from the individual parts, but not the whole.
That said, the film is not without its faults. Critics have complained that ‘tragic’ Melinda is difficult to like, but while I agree with this claim, it is also quite immaterial. In short, this is simply Melinda’s character, and is not necessarily someone to fully empathize with, much less ‘like.’ The real issue is that, for all of its occasional ingenuity, the film doesn’t make too much of any character, as symbol or as personage, and the film’s original conceit -- comedy vs. drama as competing means of revelation -- is implicitly answered, but to no avail. The young people it attempts to depict are likewise incredibly different from the kids of 2004 (the film’s year of release), for they merely drink wine, listen to classical music, and act in a way that’s rather uncharacteristic of their period and age. Yes, it is one Allen’s more interesting post-Golden Age films, but Allen seems to have little knowledge of the generation he wishes to depict, caught up, as they are, in activities that few present-day adults ever care for, and mannerisms that they simply do not have.
Is Allen out of touch? Perhaps, but while he is not too good on the details of what folks in their 20s and 30s might superficially do, today, he nonetheless shows how universal some behaviors really are: Melinda’s breakdown, Ellis’s weaknesses, and both people’s self-aggrandizement, as well as their self-destruction. No, Woody Allen has fully left the realm of great philosophical posits (Stardust Memories; Another Woman; Crimes and Misdemeanors) a long while back, but still has his characters, and their foibles. These are, in short, issues that would plague Allen into his later years, even as he’d go on to craft some films that rival the very best of his earlier output.