Woody Allen: Unshrinkable

Not since Danny Kaye’s “Court Jester” and “Knock on Wood” had I laughed through tears – until I viewed Woody Allen’s early madcap farces such as “Take the Money and Run,” “Bananas,” and “Sleeper.”

I was delighted – and moved – by Allen’s bittersweet, autobiographical comedies: winsome “Annie Hall,” but also “Broadway Danny Rose” and “Radio Days.” The latter owned special resonances for me as an affectionate tribute to Brooklyn and Manhattan of my own adolescence.

But starting with “Interiors” in 1978, Allen baffled, then disappointed his admirers by setting aside his comedic gifts for heavy-handed glosses of major “intellectual” European directors. Films like “Interiors,” “September” (1987) and “Another Woman” (1988) essentially were hollowed-out repros of Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, and Resnais: Allen insipidly parroted their political and metaphysical concerns, without a jot of their genius.

Photo by Philippe Antonello © Gravier Productions, Inc., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
A photo from Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love,” featuring Alec Baldwin and Jesse Eisenberg.

Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) was an unexpected exception to Allen’s fatuous assumption of intellectual depth and high moral tone. It encouraged many critics – myself included – to hope that he had recovered his stride; indeed, that he actually might forge a unique blend of comedy and ideological contemplation that would win him the auteur status he so clearly craved.

Sadly, “Crimes” turned out to be a one-off. Allen resumed grinding out tedious knockoffs of “Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) (already a lackluster effort), hallmarked by the lugubrious nattering of well-off Gotham narcissists over their guilt-ridden philandering or stale genre replicants like “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993).

Deconstructing Harry” (1997) was Allen’s most maladroit homage to European art-house cinema yet; a self-serving rehash of Fellini’s “8 1/2,” mediated through the director’s tepid counterfeit of novelist Philip Roth’s hotly debated “counterlife” autobiographical devices. One thus got two feeble tributes – or bald rip-offs – of impressive talents for the same ticket.

Speculation inevitably arose that Allen had created his antihero, a failed writer and flagrant adulterer, to process the disorderly scandal his personal life had become. His breakup with Mia Farrow; his affair with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi, while still living with Farrow; and Farrow’s allegations of other improprieties, had all been notoriously paraded before the public. To me, what mattered was not the peccadillos of his personal life but the validity of his art. “Deconstructing Harry” (1997) was simply crap art.

Allen had famously declared that “90% of success is showing up.” A worthy notion, but after “Harry,” he was dutifully showing up each year with uncompelling second-string work. Many of his pictures were commercial as well as aesthetic duds, featuring Allen’s usual frustrated nebbishes and anhedonic adulterers. As ever, his actors were drawn from the profession’s summit. But whatever their age or nationality, they were perennially afflicted with that peculiar idiom I called “Woodyspeak” – hesitant, stammering, chockablock with petulant psychobabble. Woodyspeak’s wedding with Larry David’s sour kvetching in “Whatever Works” (2009) all was especially unfortunate.

In his European movies over the past few years, however, Allen has begun to show flashes of the wacky surreal wit that hallmarked his early triumphs. The hero of his film “Midnight in Paris” (2011) is a disaffected Hollywood screenwriter who’s joined in the City of Lights by his unempathic fiancée and her parvenu parents. Every evening, an antique limo whisks him back to the 1920s, where he consorts with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other artistic luminaries of the period.

In turn, a discontented bohemian beauty takes him 20 years further back to Paris’s Belle Époque, where they hang out with Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and company. She decides to dwell in that time; he chooses to return to and live permanently in real-time Paris. He rejects the prospect of a deadening marriage and dead-end career to follow his bliss as a struggling novelist.

The story is slim, its conclusions hardly novel, but the film itself has an endearing freshness and surprising beauty. Its stills of the city constitute thoughtful “declarations of camera,” embodying Paris’s allure to the frustrated writer. Allen has blessedly shed his interminable existential ruminations. At base, “Midnight” struck an agreeable note of accepting the joys of things as they are, not whinging over what they’re not.

[SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen this film, you may want to stop here as the plot and themes are explored below in detail.]

Allen’s new film, “To Rome With Love” (2012), is another appreciation of a unique, enduring European urbanity in every sense of that word. His signature comic gifts are before us again, together with an unpretentious – as opposed to his former sententious – contemplation of human transience. “To Rome” begins in the epicenter of the city’s monumental architecture. A prototypical Italian police maestro stands on his platform, conducting the eternally insane Roman traffic. His elegant gesturing precipitates an off-camera crash and howls of profanity. Allen thus deftly introduces us to Rome’s singular blend of the eternal with a frenetic, often crass, absurdist present.

Photo by Philippe Antonello © Gravier Productions, Inc., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Another photo from Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love.”

The cop steps down and tells us his real job is telling stories about Rome’s inhabitants and visitors. He narrates four tales:

• New Yorker Hayley (Alison Pill) is engaged to radical lawyer Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Her parents, just arrived in Rome to meet her prospective in-laws, are Phyllis (Judy Davis), an acerbic psychiatrist, together forever with Jerry (Woody Allen), an opera director forever fretting about retirement, mortality, and the critical derision provoked by his avant-garde productions (for example, “Rigoletto” with characters costumed as white mice). As it turns out, Michelangelo’s father (Fabio Armiliato), a mortician, is an astonishing tenor, but his talents have only been exercised in the shower.

• Antonio (Allesandro Tiberi) and Milly (Allesandra Mastronardi), a small-town Italian couple, have journeyed to Rome because he’s been offered a lucrative job by one of his starchy upper-class relatives. Hardly has Milly left to have her hair done when a voluptuous prostitute, Anna (Penélope Cruz), invades his room, mistaking him for the unknowing winner of a bet between two of her wealthy clients. He passes her off as Milly, who meanwhile wanders into an on-location film shoot and her own loopy erotic adventures.

• Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), an ordinary Roman salaryman, leaves his comfortable bourgeois apartment to be unaccountably besieged by screaming paparazzi. He’s whisked off to national news programs, where he’s interviewed about his breakfast toast and underwear preferences. He attends red-carpet premieres with his dumpy wife. Multiple hotties beg for his bed. Why this lunatic limelighting? His bemused limo driver explains he’s become famous for being famous and should enjoy it while it lasts. (Be it noted that the Romans pretty much invented the concept of fame during the rule of the Caesars and have been madly worshiping it ever since.)

• John (Alec Baldwin), a world-weary noted American architect on holiday, wanders through the picturesque Trastevere district, searching for the street where he lived during his training decades ago. He runs into Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), himself an architecture student, who takes him to his apartment. Jack’s wife, Sally (Greta Gerwig), reveals that she’s about to put up her best friend, Monica (Ellen Page), with them. Monica is recuperating from her latest disastrous love affair and stalled acting career. From his obvious ample experience, John warns Jack that Monica is a pseudointellectual, extravagantly narcissistic man-eater, but – “go ahead, throw yourself into the propeller!”

Allen weaves these diverse tales into an intricate, hilarious, and ultimately poignant dance. Apropos of life in Rome, his tempo veers dizzily between relaxed and accelerando, more often in the latter lane, propelled by buoyant Italian pop hits like the kick off, “Volare.” Allen’s agile camera flies us about and above town. We swoop over the famed Seven Hills, stroll through Rome’s teeming streets and quiet vicolos. Brief shots alternate with leisurely sequences. Associations often float freely across the scenes. Temporality takes on typical Allenesque surreality. The director has an enduring fondness for magic; here, he “magics” us into perceiving his stories as simultaneously occurring on one and over several days.

Whether appropriate to the protagonists’ age, lifestyle, or neurosis, being lost, then found – or finding themselves – informs their dramatic arc. Their off-balance, unanchored status is both existential and amusingly concrete. Hayley meets her fiancé by asking his help to find a piazza. John can’t find the lovely cobbled Trastevere lane of his romantic student years.

In a residential neighborhood, Jerry can’t locate the unlikely funeral parlor in which his prospective son-in-law lives with his family and vocally gifted father. Jerry promptly enlists the latter in resurrecting his own tattered artistic reputation, to the anger of the politically engaged Michelangelo. Utterly confused by the delicious Roman custom of giving impenetrable directions with much exquisite hand waving, Milly wanders ever farther from her husband, eventually into acting out her starry-eyed film-world fantasies.

“To Rome” again contains many references to European art-film classics. But this time around, Allen’s allusions aren’t meant to garner strokes; they’re consistently apt to the plot point at hand, as are his citations of the iconic pop classics noted above, Commedia dell’Arte and French bedroom farces. Leopoldo’s story evokes the celebrity obsessed milieu of “La Dolce Vita” (1960). The Antonio-Milly thread specifically references Fellini’s 1952 forgotten gem, “The White Sheik.” That movie’s newlyweds visit Rome for a papal blessing. The wife is caught up in the surreal-romantic world of the fumetti, comic books containing photographs and ballooned-in dialogue where Fellini got his first start.

“To Rome” concludes upon a grace note of rueful reconciliation, modest success, and celebration. The lost are found, achieve some sort of worldly recognition, or accept the limitations of a not-always-kind world. I wouldn’t be surprised if Allen were inviting free associations to the graceful, rueful conclusions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream and “The Tempest.”

Leopoldo’s celebrity vanishes like a popped soap bubble, as paparazzi and fans take up their lunatic pursuit of another unknown. Jack returns to Sally when Monica drops him for a shot at a big movie. Antonio and Milly reunite after their harebrained erotic escapades, and choose prudent small-town pleasures instead of Roman wretched excess.

Jerry persuades his mortician to sing “Pagliacci.” The production can only be described as an excursion into aquatic dementia. It’s uproarious, vintage Allen, good as ever was. The singer is hailed but decides to resume undertaking and confine his warbling to the shower. Jerry doesn’t understand Italian, so he greets the critics’ label of “im-be-chill-leh” (imbecile) as a compliment. At peace, the American and Italian families toast the upcoming nuptials (one notes that there are more happy marriages than in any earlier Allen film). In a final wondrous nocturne, Hayley and her fiancé look down from their rooftop, as an uniformed brass band, precisely assembled amid the throng on the Spanish steps, performs a charming reprise of “Volare.”

Allen’s actors, both celebrated and lesser known, are uniformly superb, with the exception of Eisenberg. (His Jack is the only character afflicted with terminal Woodyspeak). Benigni’s meld of hilarity and pity is unutterably poignant, as he dances madly on one foot, in hope of regaining his former adulation. Allen is pretty much the old and very funny Woody. But now that he’s actually old, his whimpering about death seems painfully apropos instead of existential schtick.

Some critics have protested that Allen’s Rome, like his Manhattan and Paris, shows not a whit of urban reality, people of color, so forth. You’d never know Italy was on the brink of economic collapse, abetted by Silvio Berlusconi’s Madoff machinations. I’m impatient with such complaints. If the wretched of the earth never really concerned Allen onscreen, they didn’t much trouble the celluloid Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields, either.

One has also heard speculations that Allen’s taking himself out of his longtime Manhattan milieu might be energizing a creative sea change; that his graceful embrace of common joys in “To Rome” is notably related to the resolution of his own midlife/late-life identity crises. As always, I’m wary of confusing the man with the work. Pathobiography, particularly in so complex and seductive a case, is a dubious enterprise. As Jerry observes, people have been trying to analyze him for decades, without success.

I also make no facile assumption that the new film betokens an ongoing Verdi-like reinvention of Allen’s talents in his old age. I fell into the trap of imagining that Allen’s work after “Crimes and Misdemeanors” would keep striking into bold new territory. He’s neither the first nor the last artist to rise, Phoenix-like, from his own ashes, only to fall back into the dust. One can only hope this won’t happen. But at least, to paraphrase Rick Blaine in “Casablanca,” we’ll always have Woody’s Rome, with love.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>