Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What are Woody Allen's most under-rated films?

We both enjoyed Midnight In Paris, nervously hailed (yet again) as Woody Allen's 'return to form', a claim treated with justified suspicion after a few writers jumped the gun after preview screenings and said the same of Melinda and Melinda and Match Point.
Vicky Christina Barcelona had also picked up good reviews and even earned a dollar or two, albeit only at the demeaning cost of literally hiding the fact of Allen's involvement from all advertising. (This includes the DVD packaging, which does not mention his name once, except - literally unreadably - in the tiny credits bar at the bottom.)
That was all very nice, but very laid-back and unsurprising: this one has a bit more get up and go.

Owen Wilson plays Woody Allen playing a frustrated Hollywood screenwriter and would-be novelist, obsessed with the ambiance of twenties Paris, who finds that he is able to travel back in time and hang out with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, and the film recreates more than one era of Paris's past with a degree of sumptuousness that suggests someone's put a bit more money into this than usual. (It's distributed by Warners: his first major release in I don't know how long.)
For me and probably you this premise is obviously irresistible, and developed as invitingly as it sounds, even if Allen - equally true to form - does come close to souring it by giving Wilson a moment of climactic realisation that seems to endorse the anti-nostalgia sentiments of the character played by Michael Sheen, an obnoxious intellectual with no time for golden ages. (He's also unable to resist two chances to get easy laughs with arrested adolescent party politics - perhaps as insurance against potential attacks on the film for its reactionary premise, perhaps not, but either way reminding me just how weird it feels on those rare occasions this so stubbornly idiosyncratic a man feels the need to play to the gallery.)

There's some simple but undeniable fun with the cast of real-life figures Wilson encounters (including that ridiculous actor Adrien Brody as an appropriately ridiculous Dali) - I was amused despite myself by the moment in which Wilson, tipped-off by the future, attempts to pass on the plot of Exterminating Angel to a baffled and disinterested Bunuel - and the supporting cast has its usual quota of nice surprises (including a pleasantly unaffected Carla Bruni as a museum guide, and Priceless's Gad Elmaleh in a very funny, wordless cameo as a private detective).
It's good fun, not hilarious, for the most part entirely disarming, and I enjoyed it especially because I had just got back from a trip to France (and, among other things, had visited a farm to see how the apple brandy Calvados is produced, and which I was therefore most amused to see Wilson and Marion Cotillard quaffing in the film.)
Way back, when I, like Wilson, was visiting Paris with my then-fiancee, I too went on a tour of its twenties literary past, visiting the various Hemingway haunts, the (new) Shakespeare and Company booksellers, and Gertrude Stein's house. The difference is that my fiancee was happy to go with me, and I'm pleased to say is now my wife. Also, of course, Gertrude wasn't in.
And it's good to see Woody's name on the posters again.

I've never seen a Woody Allen film I've regretted surrendering the time to, though some are clearly failures: I suppose the one I've seen that fell widest of its potential is Match Point, which had the makings of a masterpiece. A very few seem to me slightly overrated: Sleeper (an amusing attempt to prioritise visual over verbal humour, but verbal humour is surely what we want from the man), Annie Hall (still riding on its initial reception, when it seemed breathtakingy new and advanced, but now, surely, an obviously transitional effort, instantly eclipsed by Manhattan), and Hannah and Her Sisters (good stuff, but there's lots better, and the major post-production restructuring does show).
The only one I didn't really enjoy at all, and have never felt the need to see a second time, was Husbands and Wives, the film that became synonymous with the Mia Farrow scandal, and was praised for its dramatic and aesthetic rawness, but which seemed to me irredeemably ugly in both capacities, with exactly the right visual style to match its utterly horrid cast of characters. (Lysette Anthony's character, a sweetly naive New Age idiot loathed by the author as much as his characters, is the only one I wouldn't have happily watched driving off a cliff. Deconstructing Harry, which was attacked far more for its mean-spiritedness, I found much more appealing, perhaps because the nastiness was addressed by the film itself, and the character of Harry was more overtly at odds with Allen's own persona. The film's narrative structure is somewhat gauche, as Allen can often be, but the film makes me laugh more than a lot of other Allen films of its vintage.
The other side of Husbands and Wives was Manhattan Murder Mystery, a retreat into whimsy and an exercise in ingratiation in the wake of the scandals, that Allen preferred to describe as an indulgence (a dessert, he called it, between weightier courses), the triviality of which, he claimed, made him guilty. Some critics felt the same, but on the whole it was hailed as a refreshingly light and charming - if not especially witty - return to a less preoccupied style. In more recent interviews, I've noticed, he seems to have warmed to it, and singles it out for especial praise, which, as you'll know if you've ever read an interview in which Allen discusses his own work, makes it a lucky film indeed.
The return of Diane Keaton - in a role written for Farrow and which she insanely thought she would still undertake after falsely accusing him of child molestation - is a happy event (why didn't she hang around for a few more?), and her (and Allen's) interplay with Alan Alda is especially relaxing. Nice, too, to see Alda play an unequivocally likeable role, after his charm was so effectively used against type as the horrendous Lester in Crimes and Misdemeanours; Anjelica Huston is rewarded too for her all too convincing intensity in that film with an excellent supporting role as a funny, maneating novelist. You may find yourself surprised at the relative lack of memorable lines, but how anyone can come out of this without a big grin on their face is beyond me. At university I saw it three times in one week, the last time at the now closed Camden Plaza, where I saw it as a last-minute substitute for The Vampire Lovers (playing at a rep cinema I couldn't find until after the film had started), and sat next to Simon Callow.

Of the films he has made subsequently, I think judgement in many cases still needs another layer of dust before it can reach certainty. I loved Mighty Aphrodite on release, but my friends hate it, and with their criticisms still ringing in my ears I've never quite liked it as much again. Everyone Says I Love You is an obviously happy film, with some beautiful sequences - and Drew in a Woody movie! - but there's no question that while an Allen musical is so delightfully odd an idea the film cannot fail to please, nonetheless Allen does not direct the musical sequences well, and the lack of old-time talent is not a myth.

Then, speaking of old-time talent, there are the Scarlett Johansson collaborations. I've already mentioned Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona, but I did think that Scoop, though unquestionably Allen at his silliest, was unjustly maligned.
The only of his collaborations with Scarlett in which they also co-star, I really enjoyed the onscreen rapport between his crap magician and her student journalist. He doesn't play bumbling idiots often but he always does it well, and a geeky Scarlett (or as geeky a Scarlett as is possible, given her natural inheritance) is a nice change too. I also like the way well-known faces from British comedy turn up in both her English movies in tiny straight roles (look out for John Standing and Paula Wilcox in Scoop). I'd love to see more of Woody and Scarlett, especially co-starring, partly because the combination seems on paper such an unlikely one yet in Scoop turns out so very nicely, also because Allen rarely seems to warm up to his stars (as a director I mean), but in Scarlett's case he is clearly a besotted fan as much as (or more than) a shrewd judge of performance.

The big bone of contention comes when he tries straight drama. Generally, I like them, especially the 'vintage' ones: Interiors, Another Woman and September, and would certainly include them among the more under-rated titles in his filmography.
The common complaint that the scripts are mannered and full of over-composed observations and over-formal sentence structure would not bother me in the least ordinarily: naturalism is just one technique among many, not the gold standard to which all drama should aspire. That said, critics of these movies do have a point in so far as Allen always picks very naturalistic actors, and encourages them to give naturalistic performances, and so his scripts often make a bad fit with the acting. It is this disjunction, rather than the dialogue's artificiality per se, that can cause audiences to laugh at the heightened moments. But the patent sincerity and seriousness of intent in these movies does earn points with me, and all three seem to me sufficiently laden with cherries as to outweigh the occasional stalks.

I suppose the most underrated Allen films must inevitably be found among those that either flopped most significantly (in the days when the difference between an appreciated and an unappreciated Allen film could still be measured in box-office take) or else received the worst write-ups in the years thereafter, yet still seem not just better than critics or public allowed but actually in the top half of his work.
A film like Shadows and Fog, for instance, seems to me plainly better than its reputation, but not so much better as to justify making any big case for it. And I have not seen Hollywood Ending or Curse of the Jade Scorpion (the latter sometimes nominated by Woody himself as his worst), so as to whether they are hugely or only slightly underrated I can make no comment (beyond registering my strong inclination to believe that they do lie somewhere on that spectrum).

So, omitting the serious dramas, objection to which comes down as much to one's personal view of the very idea of them as to their specific merits on their own terms (which makes them a special case, a separate question, to be reserved for another day), these are my nominations for Allen's four most unjustly maligned efforts.

1. Stardust Memories (1980)
Memories does have a following, and a reputation, now, but at the time it was a major disaster for Allen: his first real failure not with audiences, whom he was happy to malign, but more crucially with critics, on whose support he had plainly been counting. Partly it was on account of the obvious indebtedness to other film-makers that continues to be an occasional problem for him (Fellini this time, rather than Bergman) but mainly it was the perceived sourness, and the sense that Allen was biting the hand that fed him, attacking public and critics alike for their failure to get behind Interiors. And so, the hand was abruptly and decisively withdrawn.
Rather than face up to this breakdown in communication, Allen prefers to this day to write off the film's initial reception as a mistake - audiences were too silly to see that the film was a fantasy, with no autobiographical relevance at all. This is obviously disingenuous from frame one, but as someone who feels artists are entitled to their frustrations I've never had a problem with it, and dramatically it seems to me the obvious masterpiece among his overtly experimental films.
As for wanting to be Fellini: nothing wrong with that, either. Much of this is funny, and all of it is gripping.

2. A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)
Not so much hated as ignored by critics, this was, according to Allen, his most commercially unsuccessful film of all. Made back to back with Zelig, with Allen literally shooting scenes for one movie, then the other, then back again, it was conceived as a conscious change of style - period not modern, bucolic not urban, romantic not cynical. It is also beautifully photographed and styled, and I have never shown it to anyone that didn't find it utterly charming, or that didn't come away with the overwhelming desire to live in the house in which it is set. (The house was in fact built for the film on unused land but was left standing and is now occupied.)
This was the first Allen film I ever saw, but that it is a true masterpiece, and not merely a nostalgic indulgence, I have no doubt whatever.

3. Anything Else (2003)
Maltin calls this Allen's "all-time worst movie", a position I simply cannot make any sense of. To me it is both fascinating as an experiment and entirely successful as a comedy. In essence it's a remake of Annie Hall for a new generation, with Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci as 21st century Alvy and Annies (he's a comedy writer in analysis with an ex-wife, she's a frustrated singer lacking in confidence) and Allen as an older Tony Roberts: in the same trade, and keen for the hero to join him writing comedy in California. At one point, the pair discuss whether or not an overheard remark was anti-Semitic, or if Woody is merely being paranoid.
But because Woody cannot be at all Woodyish, since Biggs is playing Woody, he instead has a ball making his character as unlike the traditional Woody persona as possible: a gun-nut and survivalist, a car driver, and prone to episodes of irrational violent behaviour.
As well as really interesting on this level, I also found it the funniest Allen film for some time, with Danny DeVito outstanding in an especially good supporting cast. Maltin must have seen a different film.

4. Celebrity (1998)
Not a disaster, the critics seemed agreed, but very much Allen coasting along, a little film, with nothing much new or distinctive to offer. I thought it was among his best, not least because it had one of the great Allen endings - of which Crimes and Misdemeanours is the masterpiece example, as it is of everything else worthwhile about Allen's movies - where it all comes round in a circle so neatly and cinematically that you, or I at any rate, just want to stand and cheer. (Incidentally, have you noticed how people increasingly tend to applaud at the end of movies now? Pretty weird. They can't hear you.)
The first time Allen faced up to the need either to change his main characters or to cast other actors as himself (Kenneth Branagh is very funny indeed as his spiritual twin and physical opposite), the film is full of good one-liners, smart observations, well-cast cameos and acidic comment on the modern media which posterity, at least, will side with, even if contemporary film critics, understandably perhaps, did not. Plus Winona Ryder as she was meant to be seen - in glowing black and white.

Which of Woody's films do you consider land widest of their reputations?