Like so many comedy film fanatics, I love Woody Allen's early films, by which I mean mostly the classic comedies he did in the early-mid seventies (Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death) as well as two masterpieces made at the close of that decade: Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979).
Lest you think I'm living in the past -- a theme the Woodman has explored in his latest much ballyhooed film -- our website also features Allen titles from the eighties, including Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985), and the brilliant Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).
But from the nineties on forward, my enthusiasm for his work began to wane ever so slightly. Could part of this have to do with the messy scandal from this period, when Allen decided to hook up with companion Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn? Maybe.
Though no prude and fairly inured to the decadent ways of the picture business, I was still shocked and disgusted by what happened and how it all played out. Unless you lived through this time as an adult, it's hard to fully appreciate just how ugly and unseemly this whole affair was.
The portrayal of this odd May-December romance in Barbara Kopple's 1997 documentary Wild Man Blues was particularly striking. He comes off mostly as a fretful neurotic (but we knew that), she as a rather bossy, humorless young woman. Still, as their enduring union proves, marriage has worked for them, and the moral outrage that originally attended their getting together is now a distant memory.
Neurotic or not, it's hard to argue with Woody Allen's prodigious talent, or his immense contribution to film over time. Incredibly prolific, he has directed and written over 40 movies, starring in many of them. And he has more than Mia Farrow in common with Frank Sinatra: truly he has done it his way, getting his films made for the most part independently, without studio interference.
Also, he specializes in the kinds of movies I'm always saying we need more of: human-scale movies for grown-ups, built on literate, intelligent scripts.
That said, like any other filmmaker, he's had hits and misses.
Great artists of all types and stripes confront the same challenge: once they've created something truly brilliant, how do they ever equal it, much less surpass it?
Woody Allen had started out as a comedy writer, and after directing some amazing comedies (no small feat), he felt the best way to further develop his gift was to move beyond pure comedy. Annie Hall, which made me laugh and cry, was just the beginning of this evolution.
Back to the early nineties... I recall seeing Bullets Over Broadway (1994), and thinking it an energetic, colorful valentine to the glory days of the New York theatre -- and also movies, especially, Born Yesterday (1950). I did not -- could not -- put it up to the level of say, Sleeper (1973). It was good -- maybe even very good Woody -- but not among his best work.
I felt basically the same way about Deconstructing Harry (1997), a surprisingly caustic film that left a sour after-taste, and Small Time Crooks (2000), occasionally hilarious and with great Manhattan seasoning, but no timeless classic...
I began at this time to feel Woody was repeating himself (and I was not alone). For better or worse, Allen has a very particular "voice" in his movies- and this voice was getting too easily discernible, and just faintly annoying.
Match Point (2005) marked a sort of late career come-back for the writer/director, a slick, literate thriller about a tennis pro who marries into a wealthy London family and gets entangled with an impossibly sexy femme-fatale (Scarlett Johansson). Nominated for a best Screenplay Oscar, I thought it was extremely well acted and beautifully made. The problem came with the denouement (which I won't disclose): for me, it came out of nowhere, and I simply didn't buy it.
In a murder yarn, that's a big deal! Ah, well. Many disagreed with me.
Then there was Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), another solid hit- again very assured and well-made, romancing another European capital, and featuring the husky-voiced Ms. Johansson. People raved over it, and like Match Point, I found much to admire, in particular Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz (who won an Oscar for her role).
Again, however, I had some issues: a discernible preciousness was creeping into some of Allen's dialogue; in particular, the central character of Vicky (Rebecca Hall) came off as incredibly annoying to me, though I'm not at all sure the director intended this.
And now, at the ripe age of 75, Woody gives us Midnight In Paris. The film is quite simply his biggest hit ever, surpassing Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah at the box office, and unlike most of his past films, playing fairly well in Peoria. Pundits point to the presence of star Owen Wilson, the gorgeous setting of Paris, and an escapist fantasy premise for its success.
Admittedly, by the time I saw it I'd heard so many superlatives I was prepared to be let down a little -- and I was. Though eye-catching, clever, and consistently diverting, the film really works best when our hero, aspiring novelist Gil (Wilson) gets transported back to the twenties, and we meet the likes of Hemingway, Dali, and Gertrude Stein. Even though they come off like caricatures and composites, it works. It's funny and it's fun.
Yet whenever Gil is situated in the present with his obnoxious wife (Rachel McAdams) and her equally repellent parents, the movie becomes... again, annoying. If only that aspect of the film had been handled more subtly. I kept thinking: you don't need to hit me over the head to make me see Gil is not in the right relationship.
I admire Woody Allen immensely, because even as I critique his various films, he is consistently giving us work worth critiquing. And while I believe Midnight In Paris is a tad overrated, I also get why it would be: outstanding American movies for thinking adults are an increasing rarity these days.
And really, Midnight In Paris is entertaining overall. Still, in purely quality terms, it's no "Love and Death".