Friday, August 04, 2006


Existential Friday: Woody Allen

In the life and work of Woody Allen, every day is existential Friday, is it not?

I saw Scoop, Woody Allen's latest, last week. But my review of it and of his movies in general has gotten so long-winded, that I have to break it up into a few separate posts. For now, let's just do a whirlwind tour of his career.

Woody Allen has directed 42 major motion pictures, an incredible acheivement in this era of movie-making.

I saw 7 of Allen's first 8 movies. (The only one I missed is a made for TV comedy I'd never heard of, called Men of Crisis: the Harvey Wallinger Story.) In the past 20 years, I've started to skip more of them -- particularly the not-comedies -- so that I've seen 31 of his 42 movies overall.

I think he's made several good movies, but, frankly, no great ones. Annie Hall -- probably the movie that gets the most votes for Allen's best -- seems so dated and amateurish to me now. What I still love, or like, about Annie Hall are certain classic bits -- particularly, the split screen comparison of dinner scenes in a Jewish and a Wasp household.

And that's really his style, with comedy. He throws lots of jokes at you, and some are classic. The rest are formulaic and get you to laugh mechanically or just fall flat.

In a sense, that's been his style with filmmaking too. He's a genius, not because he has given us an incomparable flash of inspiration, but because he's so productive and hardworking. He produces about one movie every year -- apparently he prides himself on that regularity. To turn out one movie a year that is more or less watchable -- a movie written and directed by himself -- is in my a kind of genius, of the sort that is "90% perspiration."

Genius or not, as of this writing, there are "only" nine Woody Allen movies I like, in the sense that I enjoyed them before and wouldn't mind seeing them again. Only one is from before 1980.
Hollywood Ending (2002)
Small Time Crooks (2000)
Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
Radio Days (1987)
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Zelig (1983)
Take the Money and Run (1969)

The next list is movies that I liked when I saw them, but that have worn thin on me. I find them teeth-grindingly dated and stilted now -- even though each one of them have one or more classic and timeless comedic bits.
Manhattan (1979)
Annie Hall (1977)
Love and Death (1975)
Sleeper (1973)
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972)
Bananas (1971)

What about you?

I saw Manhattan Murder Mystery in the theater with my stepmom, and we nearly peed our pants we laughed so hard. I think to this day, it's my favorite Woody Allen movie. It's really a near-perfect film.

My other favorites are Sleeper and Radio Days. Never liked Manhattan. Deconstructing Harry was OK, as was Purple Rose. I agree with you on Annie Hall--it has some truly great scenes, but as a whole I'm not impressed anymore. It's so dated.
I've seen most of Woody's movies, but can't say I liked them all .. we'll have to agree to disagree about "Manhattan," because that one remains my favorite Woody flick and one my overall favs too .. One you didn't mention that I would recommend is Alice, with Mia Farrow . very strange, but enchanting
There is another one I am seeing bits and pieces of on HBO but forgot the name, something like ".Belinda and Belinda" I might think it is good if I can ever sit down and watch it in the order it is meant to be watched.
Of the second group I loved each one except "Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex....* I thought it was too far flung and is a good example of buying book rights and making hash of the intended message - didn't Helen Curley Brown write it?
But generally, it got old and so did Annie Hall, it was good about once, then it lost its charm and wit.... the rest in the second group I could see over and over... and find a barb or a jab each time.
The same with the first group, Except I don't remember "Manhattan Murder Mystery" at all.
Eddie Hunter
I've only seen a handful of Woody Allen movies (I know! And I claim to be a practitioner of the inadequacy shtick!) but the only one I truly loved was Radio Days.
I don't know if this counts as a Woody Allen film since he didn't direct it--Just starred in and wrote...but "Play It Again Sam" is one of my favorites.

The scene where the spirit of Allan Felix' wife shoots the spirit of Bogart (while Allan is trying to get the nerve to kiss Linda) is a classic of movie comedy.

I liked "Love And Death" when I first saw it, but now it just seems lame in a real 1970's way.

APL -- I totally agree with you. I think Manhattan Murder Mystery is his best.

Reel -- I thought there was some good stuff in Alice, but I think Mia Farrow is a really bad, unwatchable actress -- though adequate in Broadway Danny Rose.

ET -- one word for you: Netflix.

PS -- same word for you!

DBP -- I forgot about that one. I'd add it to my 2d list of ones I once liked. It's got a nice premise, but it's such a one-trick pony, and so dated.
I still find Annie Hall brilliant, particularly because filmmakers mined it for so much good material down the road. I spot flaws in it every now and then -- what the heck did that awful comic trying to hire Woody have to do with anything else? -- but it has so many classic jokes (the "Jew" discussion, Christopher Walken, "I forgot my mantra"), and the story doesn't get tired.

I haven't seen Manhattan in years, and I think of it as a love letter to the city at a particular point in time. Great for those purposes, yes.

Husbands and Wives hasn't come up here, perhaps because it so creepy to watch him breaking up with Mia Farrow and getting involved with a teenager at the same time it all happened in real life. But it's a good film.

Radio Days was already a nostalgia piece and therefore cannot age -- good thing, too. Sleeper is terrific.

Everything ... Sex (etc.) is definitely dated. A few good gags, though.

Take The Money and Run is a nice one. Woody at his most innocent and Chaplinesque. The cello in the marching band is enough to make it worthwhile.

I never got into Hannah and her Sisters.
What an interesting subject for Existential Friday. Does this mean that it's time to start discussing Woody Allen as a filmmaker again, rather than as Soon-Yi's inappropriate partner?

I haven't seen many of these films. I guess I need to bone up on my Woody.
I haven't seen nearly as many Woody Allen flicks as you have but I am a fan of his work -- maybe because the overly self-involved existential stuff resonates with me. Here are a few of my faves:

The Purple Rose of Cairo -- I love this film and think that Mia is good in the role. I think we all have indulged in the fantasy of leaving our lives behind and stepping into a new and exciting existence, even one that is fictional.

Hannah and Her Sisters -- For a man with some serious "issues" with women, I think that Woody creates great female characters in many of his films. They are multi-dimensional, autonomous, and not simply foils or love interests for the male characters. This film has the added benefit of aptly capturing the complexitiy of women's (and sisters) relationships to each other.

Husbands and Wives -- Neel is right. Watching this film was like watching a train wreck. I cringed during the film but couldn't look away. It's got to be one of Woody's most honest and revealing films. Judy Davis is phenomenal in her role. I had been boycotting Woody's films and this one pulled me back in.

A few others that I especially like are:
Radio Days
Broadway Danny Rose
Take the Money and Run
Hollywood Ending
Annie Hall

I enjoyed Manhattan Murder Mystery too but don't feel it is the standout that others claim it is. I've seen in twice and would pass on seeing it again.
My first Woody Allen film was Mighty Aphrodite, to which I cannot lend my support. My most recent Woody Allen film, Match Point, was shown on a flight to Europe. A bizarre choice for a flight, but a movie I'd recommend when you're on the ground.

In between these two films, I saw the movie "Dummy" with Adrien Brody. I thought this was a Woody Allen film, but come to know now that it was Greg Pritiken. Any movie about Ventriliquism is worth a gander, Woody Allen or not.
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