Was ever a film-maker in as paradoxical a professional place as Woody Allen?
Here is a director who has been able to make a film a year for many, many decades, who has complete freedom to make anything he wants however he wants to make it, and yet whose name is clearly perceived not merely as a non-draw at the box-office but a positive liability.
It's been a while since we've seen such a generous advertising budget allocated to an Allen film as has been bestowed upon Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Every few minutes as I am writing this, I see the poster go past my window on the side of a bus, and I can't remember the last time a Woody film got that kind of treatment. Clearly somebody has high hopes that this one might actually make a bit of money for a change.
And that's what makes it even more interesting that his name appears nowhere on the poster. Even on the proper cinema ones it's only in tiny letters at the bottom. Nowhere does it say 'The new film from Woody Allen' or anything like that; it's as if his name will not merely not bring in the crowds but will actually turn them away. (The posters for Cassandra's Dream said 'From the director of Match Point'; these don't mention a director at all.) It's been a long time since Annie Hall.
Actually, I don't hold with the view that he's done nothing good at all in the last ten years. I liked Celebrity. I liked Anything Else a lot (Leonard Maltin called it his worst film ever; I say it's the first to get reappraised when the man shuffles off: a fascinating and overt remake of Annie Hall). A lot of the ones I haven't seen, like Scoop, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending look pretty intriguing. His decision to start making films in Europe may not have payed off big in artistic dividends but it has reinvigorated his imagination; round about the time of Small Time Crooks he really did seem to be winding himself into the ground in ever tighter rotations.
Match Point had plenty wrong with it but it held your attention and never obviously gave itself away as a Woody Allen script (except, perhaps, when characters start complimenting each other on their knowledge of Dostoyevsky).
The other interesting thing to have happened to him in the last couple of years is Scarlett Johansson: after years of random casting with often inappropriate big names he suddenly found a muse again. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is his third film with her so far, and they seem to have a genuine two-way appreciation of each other's talents, so her Cristina comes alive a little more solidly than your average twenty year old girl written by a seventy year old man. The same goes for Vicky, played by Rebecca Hall, an English actress with a faultless mastery of Allen's own New York rhythms.
She was also in that very good film The Prestige, again with Scarlett, but I had to look her up to realise that, so convincingly American is she here. Dwarfed in the advertising by Scarlett and Penélope Cruz, hers is actually the main role, along with the chap (I don't know his name, I'm afraid; look it up on the IMDB if such esoterica is your thing), and, again along with the chap (is it Javier something?), hers is the film's best performance.
Cruz is fine too in another of Allen's big, showy monster roles, albeit one who doesn't turn up until the film is half over. Just as well; a little goes a long way with Allen's hysterics.
Who was it who said Penélope Cruz looks like a moth? A strange thing to say, yet inarguably true.
The plot is the usual impossibility-of-finding-true-love and art-versus-life malarkey he's been serving up since Manhattan, and peopled by characters who are as always products entirely of his world rather than their own. Nothing in the film says 2008; there is no hint of contemporary issues or of a culture that has changed in any obvious ways since the late seventies. This is not a bad thing, by the way, it just means that it is not real: the older Woody gets, the more he is kind of in his own little dream world. This is good. I like A Countess From Hong Kong very much, too: I like it when a distinctive film-maker with a unique voice sets their work apart from the temporary obsessions of the year in which it was made. Allen's got his eye on the retrospectives, not the weekend figures.
It's a pretty inconsequential film, but pleasant, and certainly more relaxed and assured than Allen's other director-only meditations on these subjects, which tended to come across as unduly earnest filmed theatre. This is his most liberatedly cinematic film in God knows how long, and his most visually sumptuous certainly since A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, perhaps ever. It's a reminder of how much fresher he can be as a film-maker when he forces himself outside of his autopilot zone. The characterisation runs true to form, however, and some of that loaded dialogue comes off heavily when there's no Allen to give it a punchline, but the golden photography and beautiful locations (neither a traditional source of pleasure to Allen) make this an incredibly easy film to watch.
Out tomorrow is one I certainly didn't see coming. The Pink Panther 2 is the almost too inspired name for the twelfth Inspector Clouseau movie and the big question is: can it keep the standard of comic invention as high as the last half-dozen or so?
Talk about flogging a dead horse. And this Steve Martin chap's got a few bob to win on himself hasn't he? First he's Bilko, then he's Clouseau; he's nothing if not confident. I say this not because I think Clouseau is some sacred icon of comedy: quite the opposite in fact. But still, why can't Martin come up with his own funny detective? He'd have a much better chance of getting away with it. I don't know anyone who's looking forward to this, or who went to see the last one. And with John Cleese in the old Herbert Lom role it really is looking like has-beens' happy hour.
What next for Martin? Probably a new Marx Brothers film with him and Eddie Murphy playing two brothers each. I mean, really! The cheek of the man.