Whatever Happened to Woody Allen?
He's made (at least!) a film a year since 1970, a record that's all the more remarkable when you realise that he's written and directed all of them, and starred in most.
They include some of the best-loved and most quoted comedies in cinema history: Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah And Her Sisters take some beating, and that's to ignore "the early, funny ones" (Sleeper, Love and Death, Bananas); the lovely miniatures from what I consider his finest period (the early 80s gave us Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Zelig and A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy) and such ambitious later films as Crimes and Misdemeanours, Deconstructing Harry, and (maybe his masterpiece?) Husbands and Wives.
You gather, I consider myself a fan. At least, I used to. So how come I'm dragging my feet when it comes to last year's effort, Cassandra's Dream (which is released in cinemas Friday)?
Sad to say, I fear Woody's lost it. No one makes a masterpiece every time (well, maybe the Dardenne brothers, but that's about it) and Allen's fallen short many times over the years - Shadows and Fog and Mighty Aphrodite are the first to come to mind. But Woody's current slump has been going on for the best part of a decade. Every so often someone hails a "return to form", and to be sure, some are less awful than the rest, but hand on heart, the last Allen film I actually enjoyed from start to finish was 1999's Sweet And Lowdown, a minor pleasure to be sure, but a miracle of wit and wisdom in comparison with what followed.
The falling off has affected almost every aspect of his films, right across the board. The writing feels hopelessly out of touch. Woody has been recycling story ideas again and again of late (it sounds as if Cassandra's Dream leans on Crimes and Misdemeanours almost as heavily as Match Point… which Allen already reworked in a lighter vein in Scoop). No matter who plays them his leading men all sound like a certain snappy, neurotic 60s standup, and his women are almost all dumb or desperate - or both. He may be the most sexist filmmaker in the world right now.
The 'serious' films (Match Point) are dry, pretentious and schematic. The 'light' movies (Hollywood Endings) are inane and slapdash, as if they've been tossed off in a hurry - which they have.
Allen famously doesn't reveal his scripts to his actors (cast after the most cursory audition, usually for name recognition value alone), he barely rehearses them and then shoots almost everything in a single take (Colin Farrell reports he did more takes for one scene in Miami Vice than for the whole of Cassandra's Dream). The trouble is it looks like it. Clint Eastwood might get away with such economy, but for most mortals Ed Wood isn't a good role model.
Allen's movies these days are littered with uncertain performances, caricatures, and so many sore thumbs… Among the worst, I'd cite Helen Hunt in Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, Ewen Bremner in Match Point, Scarlett Johansson in Scoop, Jason Biggs in Anything Else, and Woody himself in Everything Else. Visually, they're as dry as toast, falling back on the crutch of ugly, badly lit master shots.
It doesn't help that these days he's taken to touring Europe, mostly because he can't raise the financing in the US. Not that he hadn't done Manhattan's Upper West Side to death, but at least he knew his Elaine's from his MOMA. In London he just seems lost and disoriented, as if his experience of Britain has been restricted to the Ritz and Noel Coward movies - which is quite likely the case.
Of course, I'm still hoping against hope that the next one will mark a real return to form, and not just another false dawn proclaimed by his die-hard apologists. Maybe Cassandra's Dream will be the one. Or maybe we'll have to wait for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, or whatever it is he's filming this year with Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood. Maybe. But I'm not holding my breath.
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