Monday, March 28, 2011

The Woody Allen Conjecture

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger limped into British theatres just over a week ago, seven months after a not-particularly-illustrious release in the US, and no one really cared. Commercially, Woody Allen has recovered somewhat in recent years - both Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point cleared $23 million in the US, and I bet you'd be surprised to learn that Scoop scooped $10 million - but critically he seems to be stuck in stagnation, beyond those two $23 million-ers, which undoubtably benefited from the "Woody Allen's made a good movie again!" cries (however true you may find them). Still, he attracts fine rosters of acting talent, but he's been managing that for so long while still releasing excreable products that he manages to make the union of five A-listers an exercise for trepidation rather than joyful hand-clapping. And yet, his next film, Midnight in Paris, is the opening night at Cannes - so a sense of excitement remains somewhere.

And I, too, can't really let go of all hope that it won't finally be a return to form for the workaholic filmmaker - even if, by my measure, the last time he made a film really worth anyone's time and thoughts was 1994's Bullets Over Broadway. Is the percipacity and wit that he used to display so gloriously really gone from the man? Not content to rest my current feelings toward the man on one film alone, I finally screened Whatever Works (which took over a year after its UK release to appear on UK screens) and found a little more to laugh at, but an equal amount to not be impressed by. These films are lazy. These films are thin. These films are full of caricatures - not necessarily a problem, but they do not exist beyond the kind of motifs that have been wrung out years ago. Allen sets up relationships between characters and then reduces key scenes to voiceover sentences, as if he just can't be bothered to script and shoot a scene of such emotional import. He wants these things over just as much as you do.

Larry David doesn't understand why his character marries Evan's. Neither do we.
Whatever Works preaches as its title suggests - no prejudices, just live your life according to whatever works for you. But if you expect me to believe that you're completely accepting of homosexuals, you might want to throw in more than one scene where a man suddenly, quite easily, bursts forth from years of repression. Or perhaps show a little physical affection between the young woman and crusty older man if you want me to believe she's so in love with him. Somewhere along the line, Woody has lost his belief in relationships. He's lost his understanding of how people interact, how they love and fall out of love and merely co-exist. Even New York doesn't seem like New York...

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger opens with a line from Shakespeare, excusing itself as "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". By now, that reads as an astonishingly honest cue to get the fuck out of the theatre. I stayed, though, and what played out was one of Allen's very worst films. One of his worst tendencies lately is the use of a novelistic narrator, a disconnected, monotone figure who fills in the gaps in the narrative - and, more criminally, fills in the gaps in the characters. Motivation, feeling, decision - the narrator tells us them all. One of the film's few moments of emotional clarity is gifted to bit-part player Anna Friel - while scene partner Naomi Watts, the film's most central character, watches with probable envy, remembering that all she gets to do is shout and fail at a convincing British accent.

Gemma Jones and Naomi Watts look for direction...
The problem, it strikes me, is this: Woody doesn't want to invest in his characters as more than caricatures or pawns for his vague thematic threads. You can still sense his personality behind Larry David's character in Whatever Works, but it's a bitter, ruder character than Woody himself (which is likely why he doesn't appear in his own films of late), or at least the Woody we knew. Even if you'd never been to New York, Allen's films used to be pregnant with a vibrant sense of the city, and, even watching his classics now, they're alive with the period and the culture and the people of the time. Whatever Works was first written over thirty years before it was made into a film, and the May-December romance at its centre is reminiscent of that in Manhattan, but the attitude shift between the two really demonstrates how badly Allen has changed. The tenderness and difficulty between Allen and the poignant Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan is worlds away from Larry David's apathy and physical disinterest towards Evan Rachel Wood. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is edited so scattishly that believability in supposed familial and spousal relationships is destroyed - it feels more like a collage than a coherent narrative.

Allen's incredible work rate - since Bananas, in 1971, there have been a grand total of 3 years where he hasn't made a film, two of which were in the 1970s - only seemed to be flagged up as a problem since the returns have become so diminishing. The break from New York isn't simultaneous with the decline, since his current nadir, Anything Else, likely (or should have) caused the geographical shift. But will he ever lose that cinematic cache, that "legend" status, that keeps attracting the stars to subpar material and Cannes to invite him to lead their red carpet? Or, more importantly, will he ever recover his talent for funny, perceptive human insights, or even the romantic visual sense that was once so palatable? We can only wait and see.

Whatever Works: C-; You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger: D

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