Author’s note: This article was written in 2014. I’m quite proud of the effort it took to write it – reseach and editing, etc. It serves as a weird time capsule of a time that you could legitimately do a Woody Allen think piece without feeling slightly queasy.
Anyway, here we go: What was his worst film??
Forward: It may seem odd and even slightly counter-intuitive to have spent such a considerable amount of time and energy on this article (and believe me this entry took a huge amount of effort to write and edit!), which looks at a very specific period in the career of American director Woody Allen, but my aim with this blog has been to discuss aspects of film culture which don’t tend to receive much attention. It’s easy to to find blogs about contemporary mainstream cinema, or to browse the endless best and worst lists of films (Batman & Robin = Worst Film Ever / The Dark Knight = Best Film Ever, etc), but these tend to merge into one loud and incomprehensible storm of opinion, and the results are often fairly headache inducing. By narrowing down my focus to examine obscure and even quite personal subjects, I aim to deliver a more understated and alternative experience for anyone who happens to pass by and find themselves reading this strange little film blog.
So, here’s a vast article (with clickable pictures and screengrabs!) on what I’ve dubbed as Woody Allen’s wilderness years, during which he made probably his most forgettable and least seen bunch of movies. I hope you enjoy it.
In 1999 Woody Allen released ‘Sweet and Lowdown’. It was a compromise of sorts; a compilation of the ideas surrounding his long gestating, epic dream project, ‘The Jazz Baby’, which Allen began writing in the 1970s, but had considered too ambitious and expensive to ever produce. What that film would have looked like we will never know, but what it had in common with ‘Sweet…’ was the period setting and basic narrative, following a brilliant but troubled musician over several years of his life as the character moves between Chicago and California during the 1930s. Despite the re-write and comparatively low budget, the result is a very fine film. Sean Penn is at his manic and sleazy best in the lead role as Emmet Ray, a fast-talking, egomaniacal jazz guitarist, and Samantha Morton plays his mute love interest, Hattie, in a performance which defines the term ‘brilliantly understated’. They were both nominated for Oscars.
Between 2000-2004 Allen made five films (his record of a film a year is near uninterrupted) which are widely regarded as inferior bits of fluffy comedy, unworthy of the talents of the director who made such great works as ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’. To suggest this is, of course, to sound like a complete tool. But there is some truth to the claim that things slid rather wildly off track for a while, and honestly, if you just removed these entries from Allen’s resume it would look much better as a whole. Who, for instance, remembers 2003’s ‘Anything Else’, the film which critic Mark Kermode described as so bad that its own title accurately reflected the audience reaction to it? Or 2002’s ‘Hollywood Ending’, which is described by angry internet critic Matt Cale from RuthlessReviews as “Woody Allen’s Ishtar“, in a review which is funnier than the film itself? I have never met anybody who has seen any of these films. In fact, if I bring them up in conversation, it’s like a scene in a movie where people’s reactions suggest that the films don’t even exist… Perhaps I really am going mad.
The question I’m looking at with this blog entry is not, “What happened?”, but rather, “How bad is it?” Many people consider ‘Sweet and Lowdown’ to be Allen’s last truly great film. Those who disagree might choose ‘Deconstructing Harry’ (1997), or even go as far back as ‘Husbands and Wives’ (1992), at least until his sudden resurgence in the late 2000s with his thriller ‘Match Point’ (2005), and romantic comedy-dramas ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona’ (2008) and ‘Midnight in Paris’ (2011), which have since firmly placed the director back on centre-stage, with Oscars and box-office receipts to prove it (he cares nothing for either). Despite the relative financial and critical success of these recent films however, there is something missing from them. ‘Vintage Allen’ is term used by fans who view ‘Sweet and Lowdown’ as the bittersweet last shout from Woody, before his fall from grace, and subsequent return to form.
I’m certainly not going to argue with this view. Whatever your opinion of Allen’s work – and some people don’t like any of his films – there was a startling dip in quality during his weird foray back into the screwball comedy format from which he made his name (‘Take the Money and Run’ (1969), ‘Bananas’ (1971), ‘Sleeper’ (1973), etc). The jokes often fall flat, the performances seem lackluster, and despite the consistency of craft (Allen has never made a bad looking film) it seems obvious that something went wrong. Again, I’m not here to speculate that perhaps the man was tired, or that finishing his jazz opus had somehow left him bereft of ideas, or that he was woefully behind the times or maybe just couldn’t be bothered [err… I thought you weren’t going to speculate? -Ed.], but rather assess the situation. Exactly how bad are the following films?
‘Small Time Crooks’ (2000)
‘The Curse of the Jade Scorpion’ (2001)
‘Hollywood Ending’ (2002)
‘Anything Else’ (2003)
‘Melinda and Melinda’ (2004)
Note how much cooler the foreign poster designs are.
Is Allen’s worst film among these titles? Are there any laughs whatsoever to be had? Who fares best out of casts which seem to be made out of uniformly great actors? All these questions and more will be answered below. Join me now for a tour through Woody Allen’s wilderness years, in which an aging director seems to write scripts which guarantee him the opportunity to kiss beautiful young women while wildly waving his arms around and shouting.
‘Small Time Crooks.’ (2000)
First up is Allen’s kitschy homage to crime capers past (including specifically ‘Take the Money and Run’), which actually shifts after thirty minutes and suddenly turns into a kind of fish-out-of-water comedy-of-manners, as the newly rich protagonists must contend with life among the New York social elite. Neither section works particularly well, although the second part is definitely stronger based on the joke factor alone. Set in modern-day New York, Allen plays a down-at-heel dishwasher named Ray, who’s married to Tracey Ullman’s feisty nail-technician and former topless dancer, Frenchy. (Oddly, we never see either of them at work.) Ray hits on a scheme to rob a bank by tunnelling under the street from a disused pizza parlour which he rents out with his brainless gang of goonish friends. Frenchy provides cover by turning the restaurant into a cookie store, and while the bank robbery goes disastrously wrong, Frenchy’s little business grows into a multi-million dollar empire (she uses her mother’s recipe).
Suddenly flushed with cash, Ray and Frenchy host a lavish dinner party in their garishly decorated new penthouse and invite NY’s best and brightest, including Hugh Grant’s charming art-dealer, David. Frenchy overhears a bitchy conversation about how completely ghastly the guests find her and Ray’s taste, so hires David to give the couple a crash-course in art, music and literature. While she takes to the lessons with enthusiasm and begins to transform into a socialite, Ray remains slovenly and disinterested. A schism forms in their marriage, and Ray begins to miss his old life of petty crime…
As the first in this series of weaker Allen efforts, critics were actually very kind to ‘Small Time Crooks’. Many hailed it as his triumphant return to his roots, and others were charmed by its irreverence and lightness of tone. The problem with the film – and it’s not nearly as bad as some people think it is – is that it’s almost too light. Allen made some of his most satisfying comedies in the ’90s, like ‘Bullets Over Broadway’ (1994), which still stands as one of the best films of that decade, and the reason they were so good was the overlapping of philosophical themes with character driven comedy (both staple elements in his body of work). If we look at ‘Small Time Crooks’ in this context we’re confronted by somewhat bland characters with little to say about life. The lesson of the film seems to echo the sentiment, “I am what I am”, which is no bad thing, but think how much better that same point was made in ‘Bullets…’ all those years before. Consider how much more alive the film was, how rich and amusing the characters inhabiting it were, and how you wanted to listen to them talking all night long (well, maybe not Jennifer Tilly…).
In ‘Crooks…’ we are faced with a series of loud domestic squabbles between Allen and Ullman which repeat throughout the film, rapidly becoming tiresome. Sure, some of the jokes are mildly amusing and the whole film is full of quickfire one-liners, but the quantity doesn’t really make up for lack of quality, and when we factor in Allen’s lunatic mugging and Ullman’s ‘noo-yawk’ screeching, we can only take so much before, quite frankly, it becomes extremely annoying.
The first act contains a stable of reliable character actors, including Jon Lovitz, Michael Rapaport and Tony Darrow, all of whom disappear from the story immediately following a ‘One Year Later’ title card which appears after the unexpected success of the cookie store. The only supporting actor retained from the first act is Elaine May, who plays Frenchy’s endearingly dim-witted cousin, May. Thank goodness Allen keeps this character in the story, as Elaine May manages to elevate the material several levels with consistently brilliant comic timing and subtle physical comedy (mostly in her reactions). Simply watching May as she listens to other characters is funny, and she easily provides the best moments in the film.
Ray: [Talking about May] “We’ll give her a small salary! She’ll never figure out or catch wise to anything… because, if you think Denny and Tommy are slow, your cousin May is dumb like a horse… or a dog or something.”
Denny: [Explaining the tunnel] “I’d explain it to you, but you gotta understand engineering.”
May: “What’s engineering?”
Hugh Grant is another in a long line of interesting casting choices in Allen films, which must have seemed like really good ideas at the time, but end up providing very little towards the film (William Hurt in ‘Alice’ (1990) springs to mind) as all he really has to do is look shocked when Frenchy and Ray say something embarrassing.
David: “So, you can see the difference between this Tintoretto… and the earlier Byzantine painting we looked at. What would you say is the most significant difference?”
Ray: “Me? I would say that the frame’s bigger here.”
David: “Mm-hmm. Well, it is bigger.”
As the story progresses Frenchy and David grow close and begin an unlikely affair, before Frenchy is swindled by her accountants and loses everything, at which point David promptly vanishes. During their time apart, Ray has been concocting a new scheme to rob one of their society friends (Elaine Stritch, best known to Allen fans as Mia Farrow’s mother in ‘September’ (1987), and probably the best thing about that film), but true to form he manages to confuse his counterfeit ‘ringer’ necklace with the one he planned to steal and ends up with the costume jewellery by mistake. When he hears that Frenchy has gone bankrupt and lost her business, Ray returns home and declares his love for her. Frenchy reveals that she has stolen David’s priceless cigarette case which she plans to auction for a bundle so that they can finally realise their dream of moving to Florida and spending some time on the beach…
The worst was yet to come in Allen’s curious slump period, but ‘Small Time Crooks’ remains a strangely uneven and at times pretty irritating film, both for its flat characters and hammy dialogue, and the overall impression of a good idea which sadly comes to nothing. It’s not just that the jokes are bad or that everybody keeps shouting their lines, but more that it feels like a film which had very little thought or care put into it. Allen is considered one of the great American auteurs (not an oxymoron, I promise) and it’s jarring to think of the director, who has total creative freedom on all of his projects, as writing a film with such vapid characters, tired jokes, and a message which is at best, obvious.
‘The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.’ (2001)
Perhaps Allen’s first mistake here was casting himself in the role of a tough, womanizing insurance investigator in 1940s New York. By his own admission Allen was wrong for this role, first approaching Tom Hanks and then Jack Nicholson, and finally Robert De Niro (!) before deciding to play the lead himself. By placing himself at the center of the film though, we wonder, might he be able to wring some comedy out of his unassuming and cowardly screen alter-ego? Not so, unfortunately. Far from playing to his strengths, Allen plays the role broadly straight and finds himself burdened with the task of bringing the character of C.W. Briggs to life. Investing little energy in convincing us of his skills as an investigator (a single mention of the recovery of a stolen Picasso) and as a babe-magnet (the terribly ill-advised casting of ‘Showgirls’/‘Saved by the Bell’s Elizabeth Berkley as his flirtatious secretary), Allen seems oddly lost-at-sea in a film which ironically sees his character spending a lot of time under hypnosis. Helen Hunt plays Betty Ann Fitzgerald, the ruthless office efficiency expert ruining Briggs’ life, and of course, falling in love with him in the process. There is some relief in the casting of Hunt though, since at the time of filming she was thirty-eight years old, and she remains modestly dressed throughout the film. The standard comedy love/hate relationship builds over the course of the story, as the pair trade imaginative insults before eventually falling into one another’s arms, a la ‘It Happened One Night’/‘Adam’s Rib’. The dialogue during these exchanges is the highlight of the film:
Briggs: “Despite all your high-falootin’ talk about streamlining the office, what you really need is a good old-fashioned roll in the hay.”
Betty Ann: “You wouldn’t know which end was up.”
Briggs: “Yeah, well, in your case I admit it would be difficult to tell.”
Betty Ann: “Don’t walk me to the door, people might think we’re leaving together.”
Briggs: “Why, do I look like an organ grinder?”
Betty Ann: “No… just an organ.”
It works fairly well on the screen, which is probably a testament to the script rather than Allen and Hunt’s chemistry, which is basically non-existent. Allen is famous for not fussing over many takes in his films, nor bothering with rehearsals. His method usually involves setting up a scene with the DP, bringing in the actors, telling them what to do as the scene progresses and where to stand, before rolling film. In theory this provides a fresh first take which is usually good enough to use (with two or three more for safety). In the case of ‘Curse…’ however, it’s obvious that Helen Hunt – a good actress with the right material – is stumbling over the busy and complex dialogue, and despite doing her best to hit comic targets she seems stressed and rattled by the demands of the script. Allen on the other hand seems to have a bad cold, but otherwise wanders through his role without much enthusiasm. Dan Akroyd is in the film for some reason, as C.W.’s pompous boss, and while he’s never really been considered a comedy talent in the same league as his peers Bill Murray and Steve Martin, he seems slightly wasted here in a role which only calls for him to bluster around and act dismissively.
The film’s plot is an old-fashioned yarn about missing jewels, mysterious stage hypnotists and a battle of the sexes, and if treated as such there are a few things to enjoy about it. The stunning photography by Fei Zhao (‘Raise the Red Lantern’) and the stylish design of the period setting, including sets, costumes and music (particularly the inspired use of Wilber De Paris performing ‘In a Persian Market’) are all first rate, but this really only serves to highlight how familiar and predictable the story feels, and how lame some of the jokes are.
Al: “She’s got a behind that won’t quit.”
Briggs: “Won’t quit? It won’t take five minutes off for a coffee break!”
The one cast member who emerges unscathed from all of this is Charlize Theron, whose cameo as a seductive high-society debutante is a welcome turn in deadpan humour, even if, yes, she ends up kissing Allen. Taking a more laid-back approach and delivering her lines in a knowingly sarcastic drawl, Theron would seem to be the only actor actually having fun with the material. The rest of the cast, including Wallace Shawn and David Ogden Stiers (both Allen veterans) just don’t seem to have anything to do except stand around and say their lines.
Overall it’s a well intentioned movie, mildly amusing but consistently less that the sum of its parts and in serious need of a re-write (the idea was based on one Allen had in the ’70s, for a short sketch). The film was a complete flop and stands as Allen’s biggest financial disappointment with a budget of around $26 million (his highest to date at time of writing) and box-office gross of $2.5 million. Interestingly, Allen was eager to reshoot a lot of the film after editing, and although he usually plans for reshoots, the sets had already been destroyed and the budget wouldn’t allow for them to be rebuilt.
Last thoughts? Let’s hear from the director on this…
Woody Allen: “I feel that maybe – and there are many candidates for this – but it may be the worst film I’ve made. I have great regrets and embarrassment. It just killed me to have such a talented cast and not be able to come through for them.”
‘Hollywood Ending’ (2002)
Well, now we’re really talking. ‘Hollywood Ending’ is the film which many point to as the ultimate low-point in Allen’s career, and his first not to receive a release in the UK – although it opened the 2002 Cannes film festival (out of competition). Starting off at a running pace with a group of Hollywood studio executives deciding to take one more chance on a washed up film director (Allen, playing it rather close to the bone), the film soon becomes one long take on a single joke, as said director, Val Waxman, suddenly develops psychosomatic blindness the day before shooting begins. With the help of his willing but bumbling agent Al (Mark Rydell), Val manages to scrape through the process of making the film within the film, while avoiding the ever watchful eyes of the producers – including his ex-wife Ellie, played by Téa Leoni. It would seem that everything ‘Crooks…’ and ‘Curse…’ suggested about Allen’s bizarre slide into manic, over-the-top comedy finally came true here, and at almost two hours in length (pretty much unheard of in Allen films, which are usually ninety minutes or less) it’s a long, rough journey over some very bad road.
Most of the observations made about the previous two films can be applied here too. Woody overacts terribly and fills his script with tedious, unfunny jokes; Téa Leoni gives a bland, charmless performance; the supporting cast have little to do except stand around looking confused; and the awkward casting of yet another female ‘Saved by the Bell’ cast member arrives in the form of Tiffani Thiessen as an actress in Val’s film, whose sudden and totally inexplicable sexual attraction to Val is at best another ill-advised comedy moment (Val’s blindness has him mistake her breasts for pillows…). There is an over-reliance on slapstick comedy too, as Val constantly falls heavily into furniture, gets hit over the head by passing construction equipment and in one memorable scene (arguably the funniest in the film) walks off the edge of an elevated sound stage and plummets onto the craft service table while giving elaborate stage directions.
[The Chinese cameraman and his translator are arguing in Mandarin.]
Val: “Who ordered?”
Quite possibly the strangest element of ‘Hollywood…’ is the obscene level of product placement. The film was Allen’s third with Dreamworks, and it’s difficult to know if they pushed for him to include this, or if it’s a deliberate, albeit unsuccessful joke. Characters are seen using Apple laptops while drinking from cans of 7Up and Pepsi, which isn’t so bad, except the camera actually follows the products around, and the actors make sure that the labels are clearly in shot. Allen also orders a Becks, which has to be first. Placement is fine when it blends into the film, but to be such a distraction as to stick in the mind only serves to exemplify how uninteresting the rest of the film ultimately is.
The ending of the film is a familiar case of Deus Ex Machina. This narrative device is very popular in Allen films and is usually introduced with a sense of self-awareness that borders on parody and the result is often charming, as in ‘Mighty Aphrodite’ (1995) where an out of control helicopter sends its pilot literally falling out of the sky and into the characters’ lives. In ‘Hollywood…’ there’s a scene after Val’s film is released to the American public (and after he has miraculously regained his sight) and is unsurprisingly savaged by critics and audiences (“Would you recommend this film to a friend? Only if I were friendly with Hitler.”). Val is devastated until he learns the film has been a huge success in France, where they appreciate his bold artistic statement in having it make no sense whatsoever. He promptly hops into a taxi and heads to the airport for Paris, with Ellie, who has fallen in love with him all over again! This seems far more like a quick and convenient high note on which to finish the film than a proper ending, and given that it all takes place in the last three minutes, I suspect this is exactly what it is.
Val: “For me, the nicest thing about masturbation is afterward, the cuddling time.”
Despite all of these obvious flaws, there is a certain fascination in watching it all unfold, if you can enter the spirit of the movie. I must confess that I don’t dislike ‘Hollywood Ending’ even although everything tells me that I should. One or two points in its favour…
Woody plays Val as genuinely and completely desperate. He has no money, he’s been reduced to directing deodorant commercials in Canada (“Up here you don’t need Oscars, you need antlers!”) and his ditsy girlfriend (Debra Messing) is only with him on the off chance of a movie role. When he suddenly goes blind there is a moment where he realises his entire career is now over, that nobody will ever hire him again and he will probably lose his apartment and have to go on welfare. For Allen to play the part of someone not just down on their luck, but totally without hope, gives the film a strangely dark comic edge. For all his over-acting it actually comes through that Val, while by no means incompetent as a film director, is a total failure at life. Val’s fractured relationships with his ex-wife and estranged son give rise to a kind of melancholy which has shades of his character from Broadway Danny Rose (1984), and it’s a shame that this isn’t the main focus of the film, but is only glimpsed at inbetween set-pieces involving Val tumbling around and groping women’s breasts and shouting.
Ed: [Talking about Val.] “He’s an incompetent, raving psychotic!”
Ellie: “He’s not incompetent!”
Although the film is not a satire by any means (if only!) there is some fun to be had with Allen’s jibes at the movie industry, as the producers are portrayed as a bunch of preening Californian philistines who would rather make a crude teenage sex-comedy than something approaching a genuine work of art. George Hamilton is the best of this bunch, constantly wandering around the set with a single incongruous golf club, discussing new plastic surgery techniques and the various addiction groups he attends. Had Allen savaged Hollywood here as accurately and mercilessly as Robert Altman did in ‘The Player’, we would be looking at a very different film, but in the end he just pokes fun a little at Peter Bogdanovich (Val’s rival for directing cheap Canadian commercials) and Haley Joel Osmont (who beats out Val to win a lifetime achievement award). I suppose the best term to use is ‘gentle humour’, but then again, Allen has actually admitted a certain affection towards LA and the people who live there, even if he views most Hollywood movies in a very dim light.
Val: “I can’t direct a film blind!”
Al: “Have you seen some of the movies out there?”
‘Hollywood…’ might seem like the ultimate in bloated magnum opera, but it does have its charms. It’s the sort of film you catch yourself watching on a rainy day and thinking, “Hmm, this isn’t very good,” but keep watching anyway just to see where it goes.
Our next entry on the other hand…
‘Anything Else’ (2003)
Oh my God… Where to start with this movie? While the above entries on this list are not exactly winners, nor even good films when all is said, ‘Anything Else’ actually marks the first time I’ve become worried while watching one of Woody’s films and begun to feel… well, kind of sorry for him. As a measure of how unpleasant I find this film, I must confess to having watched the others on this list many, many times. I count myself as one of the few to have watched every single film Allen has made several times, and have them all on a shelf (I am a completest at heart). Of course, some are watched less than others (‘Shadows and Fog’ (1991) for instance) but I find myself returning to this shelf in times of stress to select one of his films as a mood stabilizer of sorts. Only twice in my life have I watched ‘Anything Else’, and both times I felt sad. I thought about watching it again for his article (as I have the others), but life really does seem too short. Enough of this back-story though. Let’s get on with it…
Jason Biggs (he of ‘American Pie’ fame) plays Jerry, a neurotic comedian who sells his material to other stand-up comics for a living. Somehow, by doing this, he manages to live in a New York brownstone apartment and spend all of his time eating in restaurants, drinking coffee and browsing around vintage record stores while chatting with his mentor, a depressed school teacher named David (Allen). His girlfriend is a screeching, self-obsessed harridan named Amanda, played by Christina Ricci – basically reprising her role from ‘The Opposite of Sex’. It’s sort of like an updated version of ‘Annie Hall’ (1977) but without the good bits, like jokes and interesting characters.
Biggs plays Jerry as a passive, spineless lightweight who can’t believe his good fortune in snagging a babe like Ricci (!?) and so clings to her despite the fact that she treats him like something which has fallen out of a hospital bin. Allen acts as a sort of one-man Greek chorus, hovering around in the background of the plot while attempting to warn Jerry of the impending destruction of the human race – he buys Jerry a rifle and survival equipment and urges him to ditch Ricci as soon as possible (this last point at least is very good advice). Some people have interpreted Allen’s role in the film as a sort of magical time-traveller who has come to save Jerry, but frankly I can’t even begin to form an opinion on this idea.
David Dobel: “They’re having a sale here on surplus Russian Army rifles.”
Jerry Falk: “What?”
David Dobel: “Well suppose you’re home one night, you know, in bed masturbating and some guys try to break in. You need protection.”
Jerry Falk: “I just dial 911.”
David Dobel: “Have you ever dialed 911? It’s like trying to get a mortgage.”
Danny DeVito is also in the film for some reason, and he’s at his most grating as Jerry’s incredibly loud and ineffective agent. During one scene in a restaurant (there are about fifty of these), Jerry gently suggests that he might be looking to find another agent – one who can perhaps find him work – and DeVito has to act upset, stumble around weeping and then have a heart attack. If you ever wondered why we don’t see him in films any more, it’s because Danny DeVito can’t actually act. It’s not a good sign that Woody, in ‘manic hand-waving’ mode, is able to translate his character’s feelings into a more intelligent and nuanced performance, but DeVito manages to make him look like Alain Delon in ‘Le Samouraï’.
David Dobel: [After passing two men outside a bar.] “He just looked at us and said to the other guy ‘Jews start all wars.’ You got to keep alert for these things! You don’t want your life to wind up as black-and-white newsreel footage scored by a cello in a minor key.”
The main offender here however is absolutely Christina Ricci. She’s not the strongest actress in the world (where did she go?), and indeed it would take a remarkable talent to make this character work, but nevertheless her performance here is simply mind-meltingly awful. Of course it doesn’t help that Biggs just hangs around moaning and breaking the fourth wall while she takes advantage of his generosity, but even in the scenes which act as flashbacks to their first romantic encounters you can’t help but wonder what on earth he sees in this person. Take a look at some of the other emotionally unstable female characters in Allen’s films and you can see where an actor could go wrong and make them unlikable. Would Mary Wilkie have been even remotely tolerable if Diane Keaton hadn’t brought her some wit and warmth in ‘Manhattan’? Would we feel any sympathy for Jasmine if Cate Blanchett hadn’t portrayed her with that touch of Dubois-esque tragedy in ‘Blue Jasmine’? Hell, even Ellen Page managed to make her Monica character both alluring and faintly ridiculous in ‘To Rome With Love’, and that was a role written in the exact same mould as Ricci’s Amanda. The idea that Allen didn’t have five minutes to take Ricci aside and actually direct her boggles the mind, so I can only assume that her ghastliness is completely intentional. Unfortunately this still boggles the mind as it’s such a terrible decision…
Jerry Falk: “Do you love me?”
Amanda: “What a question! Just because I pull away when you touch me?”
There is an argument to be made that perhaps Allen populated this film with cruel and misanthropic characters as a move to make a darker kind of romantic comedy. His own character’s explicitly negative view of humanity, total fear and mistrust of people and use of humour as a weapon would certainly back up this claim. His sudden rages, which include taking a tire-iron to a car which steals his parking space, almost make the film worth watching just for how strange they appear (try to imagine Woody Allen smashing up a car with a tire-iron), and yet the film offers no pay-off to this intense negativity, except for the glib line that life, being so full of horribleness and misery, is like, “anything else.” So, is it any wonder that we feel so gypped by this mean little film? David becomes a fugitive after shooting a cop who makes anti-semetic remarks towards him, Jerry moves to LA to become a script writer for sitcoms, and Amanda shacks up with the doctor who treats her for panic attacks, and presumably sets about making his life some kind of living hell.
David Dobel: “…and the next thing I knew they made some crack about my religion which I found in poor taste.”
Jerry Falk: “Religion? You’re an atheist!”
David Dobel: “Yes, I’m an atheist, but I resented the fact however obliquely that they implied that Auschwitz was basically just a theme park.”
A few years ago Quentin Tarantino (didn’t expect to see his name, did you?) was asked for his favourite films of the ’00s and he listed ‘Anything Else’ as one of his top ranking movies of the decade. Now, we all know Tarantino hasn’t actually made an intelligent film since 1997, but I assume he must be seeing something here which I’m missing. So, I’ll try to find some good points in amoungst the endless horror…
Stockard Channing is quite… em…
No, I’m sorry. I can’t think of anything else.
‘Melinda and Melinda’ (2004)
After ‘Anything Else’ there is the profound feeling that sitting down to watch all nine hours of ‘Shoah’ would be a comparatively fun way to spend the day, so it’s a relief (and sort of a cheat, but not really) to move onto ‘Melinda and Melinda’. Taking the premise that any story can be viewed as either tragedy or comedy, depending on the telling, it starts with a dinner conversation between Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine (I’m guessing Andre Gregory wasn’t available) playing writers whose work is poles apart in its subject matter. Shawn claims that the essence of life is comedy, while Pine sees the world quite differently.
Another guest (Neil Pepe) suggests a story for them to try this theory with, and we’re suddenly introduced to the two worlds of Melinda Robicheaux. One world exists as a light-hearted romantic comedy where love is always just around the corner, and the other as a determined tragedy where the characters struggle to find any happiness in their lives. In both stories – which run parallel as the film flits in between them, occasionally cutting back to the two writers – Melinda is played by Radha Mitchell, while the supporting cast are different in each, even as they play comedic or tragic versions of much the same characters.
Melinda is recently divorced, has just moved to New York and is looking for a job and a place to stay. This is about as much as the two stories have in common though, as Allen manages to create a distinctive tone and story arc for each, and Mitchell gamely rises to the challenge of playing the same character in two very different ways. To see ‘tragic’ Melinda is to observe a woman on the very edge of madness. She chain smokes cigarettes, pops pills like there’s no tomorrow and drinks like a fish. She’s obsessed with her weight, age and lack of progress in life, and she’s quite resigned to the fact that her problems are all her own fault; the result of an affair which has cost her her husband and two children.
‘Comedy’ Melinda on the other hand inhabits a world in bloom, full of cute, tree-lined streets and friendly neighbours who are more than happy to invite her round to dinner and set her up with charming dentists. In this world it is Melinda’s husband who had the affair, and thank goodness they didn’t have kids or it would have meant an ugly custody battle (no room for this in comedy-land). The cast in each story perfectly reflect the tone, with indie stalwarts Chloe Sevigny, Jonny Lee Miller, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Brooke Smith supporting the tragic side, and a more Hollywood-friendly cast for the comedy, which features Will Ferrell, Amanda Peet and Josh Brolin (as the charming dentist).
Melinda: “He just knew how to touch me.”
Hobie: “You mean emotionally?”
Melinda: “No, with his hands.”
Greg: “What do you do for exercise?”
Hobie: “Tiddly winks. And the occasional anxiety attack.”
Melinda: “The minute you allow yourself sweet dreams you run the risk of them crashing down.”
It’s unfortunate that – despite Allen’s attempt to maintain a balancing act – the tragedy is by far and away the more involving story of the two. Tragic Melinda is simply a more interesting character, and watching someone struggle with life is always more of a draw than watching somebody breeze right through it. In the lighter story, Melinda’s neighbour, Hobie (Ferrell), starts to fall in love with her and desperately tries to think of ways to get her attention. When his frosty wife, Susan (Peet), begins to set her up with eligible men, Hobie attempts to sabotage their plans and win Melinda’s affections.
This story sort of belongs to Ferrell’s character, who becomes its main focus since Melinda doesn’t actually have any great problems to overcome. It’s a familiar case though, of the lead actor doing his best to play the part as Allen might have played it ten or twenty years before, and like Kenneth Brannah in ‘Celebrity’ (1998) before him, Ferrell simply tries too hard to emulate Allen’s neurotic kvetching, resulting in a rather patience testing performance.
Ferrell has been great in comedies like ‘Zoolander’, and his skill in playing dramatic roles has been proven with films like ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ and the underrated ‘Everything Must Go’, but a part like Hobie needs to be more than a facsimile of the old Woody routine for us to really care. While he’s not as outright annoying as Brannah was, his performance lacks the intelligence and charm which Allen can bring to these kinds of characters.
It’s in the tragic tale of Melinda that we really get to see what Mitchell can do, and she’s absolutely great here. From the moment she enters the apartment belonging to her estranged highschool friends Laurel (Sevigny) and Lee (Miller), with all the force of a tornado, Mitchell seems to have the role down, and she manages to maintain a level of slightly deranged melancholy from which it’s impossible to look away, right to the bitter end. Melinda in this story has no great expectations. She tries to apply for jobs but has no delusions of ever getting them, and when Laurel and their friend Cassie (Smith) set her up with their own “charming dentist”, she takes one look at the poor schmuck and quietly explains to him that she’s not ready to start dating yet. The one ray of light in her story arrives in the form of a pianist (Ejiofor) she meets at a party, with the unlikely name of Ellis Moonsong. Melinda falls hopelessly in love with Ellis, but his presence in the lives of her unhappy friends only serves to further break apart their own failing marriage and, needless to say, the ending isn’t a happy one.
Melinda: “I loved you…”
Ellis: “I don’t have a satisfactory explanation. You know these things happen.”
Including ‘Melinda and Melinda’ does feel like a bit of cheat. As Allen’s last film before his move to London for ‘Match Point’, ‘Scoop’ and ‘Cassandra’s Dream’, it’s really only in here by default. It’s a clever idea and it’s successfully realized, even if the comedy still feels familiar and rather quaint. The tragic element however, works almost perfectly. On watching Allen’s last film ‘Blue Jasmine’ I was struck immediately by the similarities between its central character and the ‘tragic’ Melinda, and it serves as a reminder that Allen has made so many films now that he almost can’t help but recycle the same characters.
Both Jasmine and Melinda share characteristics with Judy Davis’s ‘Sally’ from ‘Husbands and Wives’, Anjelica Huston’s ‘Dolores’ from ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ (1989) and even Diane Wiest’s ‘Holly’ from ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ – women on the edge of a nervous breakdown. By placing the comedy and drama into separate stories and cutting between them as the film goes along, Allen manages to achieve a nice mixture of light and dark, and it’s possible to see how one would not work without the other. Sure, it’s been done before (the saccharine Paltrow vehicle ‘Sliding Doors’ springs to mind) but here at last we have that Allen vibe back again – the interweaving of character driven comedy and philosophical themes which makes his work so interesting.
The films which followed this rocky period proved Allen hadn’t lost his touch (err, well… there was ‘Scoop’ of course, but that’s a film for another day), and while I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the recent work quite as much as his ‘vintage’ films, I’m grateful that we still have a film-maker as talented, hardworking and funny as Allen around. If life is indeed divided into the horrible and the miserable, as Alvy Singer tells Annie Hall, then I’m glad I can feel miserable with the best of them. Because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.
For Allen fans or those interested in gaining insights into his work and its themes, I highly recommend the book ‘Woody Allen on Woody Allen’, edited by Stig Bjorkman, published by Faber and Faber.
My own list of the best Allen films is generally subject to change, but if you’re looking for good ones to get you started, first of all, don’t watch any of the films discussed at length above, and instead check out these:
1. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
A respected ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) has his mistress (Angelica Huston) murdered before she can expose their affair to his wife, but must deal with the guilt of his crime while questioning the illusion of morality and reflecting on his own religious upbringing. Meanwhile, a married documentary filmmaker (Woody Allen) falls in love with another woman (Mia Farrow). Deftly balancing two narratives which interweave before they finally connect, this film stands as perhaps Allen’s most successful in terms of dramatic storytelling, observational comedy and philosophical insight into the human condition.
2. Another Woman (1988)
Philosophy professor Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) has just turned fifty. She is working on her new book in a rented apartment, but due to a quirk in the ventilation system she can hear the clients of the psychiatrist in the office next door. She is drawn to one in particular: a suicidal young woman (Mia Farrow) who is heavily pregnant. Marion reflects on the past as she begins to follow this other woman, and soon realises that her previously held beliefs and assumptions about her own life are further from the truth than she could have imagined. Tragically overlooked on release, Another Woman is a remarkably well observed character study with an absolutely brilliant lead performance from Rowlands.
3. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
A waitress in 1930s New Jersey (Mia Farrow) witnesses a miracle when a character from the movie ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ (Jeff Daniels) literally steps out of the screen and into her life. Pretty much a perfect fantasy-comedy, highly inventive and original, and Allen’s favourite of his own films.
An amoral former tennis pro (Jonathon Rhys Meyers) insinuates his way into the lives of a wealthy British family, marrying their manipulative but naive daughter (Emily Mortimer) and gaining a high-ranking position at one of her father’s firms. When his affair with a failed American actress (Scarlett Johansson) turns sour, he is forced to consider drastic action to prevent losing his privileged new lifestyle. This one seems to split fans, with some considering Allen’s first British film as failing to capture a realistic portrayal of life amoung the English upper middle-class, instead offering a typically skewed and American, ‘postcard’ view of London, but taken on its own terms it’s a brilliantly tense thriller.
This early Allen comedy is set 200 years in the future, where a cryogenically frozen musician named Miles Monroe (Allen) from the 1970s is woken by rebels opposing a totalitarian dictator. When their base is raided by the incompetent fascist police, Miles poses as a domestic robot, and meets the extremely untalented poetess Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton). Miles has to adjust to his new life in a world of giant, genetically modified vegetables, orgasmo-booths, pleasure-orbs and robot dogs (“Woof woof woof. Hello, I’m Rags!”), until the rebels track him down and convince him to take on the government and assassinate the mysterious ‘Leader’. Sleeper is a wildly silly and knockabout farce with some hysterical sight gags harking back to the silent film era (the idea was originally to set the film in a world in which talking was banned), excellent chemistry between Allen and Keaton and some wonderfully creative and beautiful ‘future-world’ design elements.
Allen’s worst film, incidentally, is a little-seen television movie from 1994 called ‘Don’t Drink the Water‘.