It’s hard work being a Woody Allen fan nowadays. For the past decade the films of one of American cinema’s most productive auteurs have proved an underwhelming and, from my own perspective, saddening experience. I remember seeing my first Woody picture at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, Bullets Over Broadway (1994) being the pinnacle of cinematic joy for my thirteen year old self and the ensuing discovery of his back catalogue quickly became a treasure trove of unending delight to that particular film-geek-in-progress. To this day, barely a week goes by without me watching one of his films, when friends want to watch a movie at my house you can bet one of my first questions will be “have you seen Sleeper?”, “what about Zelig?”, “you’re gonna LOVE Purple Rose Of Cairo!”, even those who profess to finding him an irritating screen presence, I’ll try and fast forward through the credits of Alice in the hope they’ll fall in love without pre-judging based on the title cards and that give-away Windsor font. Even as I write this, Husbands and Wives and Manhattan Murder Mystery (which I recently forced on my parents) are sitting underneath my television, and whilst I should probably be concentrating a little more on what I’m writing, in the back of my mind I’m shuffling through his films to decide which one to watch as soon as I’m done (Crimes and Misdemeanours is winning at the moment).
So it pains me to admit that with such a rich catalogue of pictures sitting on my shelf (some admittedly far from perfect), it’s only the ones prior to Small Time Crooks (2000) which regularly see the inside of my DVD player. I used to bemoan the fact to anyone who’d listen that his latest wasn’t likely to receive UK distribution, that the film industry had no respect for an artist whose pictures, whilst hardly box office gold, were inexpensive and generally turned a respectable profit for his investors. Surely the industry owed it to such an important figure of American cinematic culture to throw a few million his way to let him get his new script made, Michael Bay could bear to lose one Transformer (even just a little one) if it meant we’d get one more movie from Woody instead. But then I’d finally see the films. The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, oh. Hollywood Ending, oh dear. Anything Else, really Woody? Scoop, you cast Scarlet Johanssen? Whatever Works, that’s enough now!
It’s like watching those final Mike Tyson fights, seeing one of the world’s greatest fighters reduced to throwing sloppy punches and hoping to get out of the ring as quickly as possible. Or watching Michael Jackson’s This Is It last year, knowing you’re watching a legend at work and desperately hoping for just a flash of brilliance to take away that nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach. I literally had butterflies last night as I sat down to watch his latest film, not because I was excited but because I was willing him so hard not to throw another Cassandra’s Dream at me.
There’s little to differentiate his last ten pictures, and I include the generally well received Match Point and Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona in that group. Over the past decade he seems to have created his own lazy ‘Woody Allen film’ shorthand, almost a parody of his style as a director. The 40s jazz underscoring, narration as the means to pull his plot strands together, a saccharine sense of whimsical cutesiness and an interchangeable preoccupation with fate, luck, chance and destiny as a way of excusing the over-reliance on contrivances and coincidences that disregard either logical or realistic narrative resolutions.
But has Woody ever really had a style as a filmmaker? No one can deny his position as perhaps the greatest comedic screenwriter since Preston Sturges and I.A.L Diamond and whilst his preoccupations as a writer may bear thematic similarities across his ouevre, he hardly has a visual signature in the manner of a Bergman, a Fellini or a Kubrick, all masters whose work bears recognition through much more than merely tone. Would you recognise a Woody Allen film with the sound off? Even his more structurally adventurous works succeed principally as a result of of the writing, sure Manhattan is a stunningly photographed picture, but how much of that does he owe to Gordon Willis? In the same way he owes the performances of his cast to what the skilled actors bring to the table. He’s always cast his films brilliantly, leaving his actors to do the work for him, so it’s probably safe to say the same applies to the technical side of the filmmaking process. Whilst many of his earlier films have hugely differing visual styles, they’re usually an attempt at pastiche or homage, a look/feel he wants to replicate rather than a signature style of his own, he's always been a filmmaker who wears his influences on his sleeve. Shadows and Fog is his play on German expressionism, Stardust Memories his Fellini movie, Interiors, September and Deconstructing Harry showing up his Bergman complex and so on. Perhaps that’s why those few that stand as stylistically unique (albeit still structurally/deconstructively or simply by virtue of brilliant writing rather than visual virtuosity) on their own merits can ultimately be considered his best works, and by those I mean Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Zelig (1983), Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and her Sisters (1986), Radio Days (1987) and Oedipus Wrecks (1989).
So it came as quite a relief that You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger settled my butterflies rather quickly. In fact, and perhaps it was simply a case of low expectations and my desperately willing it to be so, I think I might go so far as to say it’s the most successful of his ‘foreign’ pictures, those made in his European production exile. Yes, it’s still whimsical and a bit twee, yes it’s irritatingly narrated and deals with ideas of destiny, fate and existential comeuppance as per usual recently, but it’s also really quite funny and charming in a way his films haven’t been for some time.
Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) dumps his wife of many years (Gemma Jones) for a bimbo hooker half his age (Lucy Punch) in the hope of replacing the son he lost years ago. His daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) falls for her art gallery owning boss (Antonio Banderas), too distracted to notice the wandering eye of her struggling writer husband Roy (Josh Brolin), whose infatuation with new neighbour Dia (Frieda Pinto) soon develops into an affair after spying her through her open window across the street (the framing suggests Woody may have seen Manoel de Oliveira’s Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl recently). There’s a book theft twist thrown in for good measure and a charlatan fortune teller (Pauline Collins) sub-plot, but mostly it’s business as usual as we chart the fallings in and out of love of moneyed urbanites in a London that seemingly only exists in Richard Curtis films.
It’s the cast that make it though, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed Anthony Hopkins in a movie as much for a long time, and Josh Brolin and Naomi Watts do well with some admittedly clunky dialogue, Gemma Jones too. It’s Lucy Punch who steals the film though, her airhead prostitute may be treading familiar ground to that of Mira Sorvino in Allen’s earlier Mighty Aphrodite, but her delivery was spot on and had me in stitches from her first scene.
Whilst I’m not suggesting this is Woody’s ‘return to form’ we’ve been waiting for by any means, it still holds its head above the majority of other mainstream comedies you’re likely to see this year, retaining a breezy charm that gives me hope that he may have one more diamond left in him yet. With his next feature Midnight In Paris already in the bag, here’s hoping that’ll be the movie that when we look back over this late period of his work in years to come, in answer to those that wrote him off years ago, we’ll be able to quote Woody himself on the runway at the end of Play It Again Sam :
“At least we’ll always have Paris…”
You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger – 2010 – USA – 94 mins – Dir : Woody Allen
You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger will be released by Warner Bros on March 11th 2011