Thursday, September 1, 2011

Just what is it that makes today's Woody Allen movies so unappealing?

Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdam wait for their lines.

People had told me that Midnight in Paris was different. That it was Woody Allen's best movie in years. That it made you fall in love with Paris all over again.

And they were right,  I suppose.  It probably is Woody Allen's best movie in years, as far as that goes. It's light in mood, and certainly better than Vicki Cristina Macarena (or whatever it was), which literally put me to sleep.  And its central gimmick - a time warp sends Owen Wilson (Allen's factotum this time around) back to the roaring twenties, where he bumps into Hemingway, Picasso, and basically the whole crowd from Intro to Modernism - is cute, and seems (at first) to have possibilities.

Plus the shots of Paris are indeed ravishing - cinematographer Darius Khondji doesn't quite work the miracles on the City of Light that Gordon Willis performed on Manhattan - but let's face it, New York ain't Paris!  And to be fair to Allen, he does go deeper than a postcard view of the city - one witty scene, for instance, sets his resuscitated demi-monde in Deyrolle, the famous taxidermy shop on the Rue du Bac; and even his time-travel gambit is set cleverly on the Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève, which twists and turns its way up to the Pantheon (pun intended, I think).

But alas, Midnight is still very much a Woody Allen movie, I'm afraid.  Poor Owen Wilson, for instance, seems to be stuck in some sort of feat of ventriloquy throughout the film - the voice coming out of his mouth is so unmistakably Allen's that the role doesn't really exist outside its creator's persona.  To be fair, Wilson's pretty good at this trick (he's got the nose for it, too). But since the actors only get their lines from their director piecemeal (usually on the day of filming), most of the scenes still have the flat affect of forced improv.  And so not much is really at stake - in Midnight in Paris an engagement cracks up before our eyes, but still we feel that little has really happened.  Indeed, while the movie keeps telling us that it's wrestling with a mighty theme (Were past ages more artistically worthy?), it basically floats along like a drifting balloon until suddenly it pops.

Which suggests to my mind an intriguing puzzle; how can Allen's signature style have once been so compelling, yet now so often seems - well, insufferable?  No, Midnight in Paris isn't really insufferable - but, come to think of it, it's almost insufferable. I'm getting irritated just thinking about it, in fact.

Once upon a time, though, Allen's movies all but spoke for their era.  And oddly, when you look back at the films from his heyday (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Love and Death), it's striking how funny and smart they still seem (and Allen had plenty of life left in the 80's - see Zelig, Radio Days, or Crimes and Misdemeanors if you doubt me).  And there is literally no one in Hollywood today who is a triple threat the way that Allen was - he wrote, directed, and acted in hit after hit for more than a decade.  He was, indeed, one of the greats.  Once upon a time.

So what happened?  It's curious to consider that Allen's own career eerily matches the conceit of Midnight in Paris - his earlier artistic achievement seems so much greater than his latter-day efforts!  Has the era simply changed (while he didn't)?  Is that it?  But then how does one explain the pleasure his earlier hits still reliably give?  Do we somehow simply put our 70's hat back on unconsciously when we watch Sleeper?  Maybe, but I'm not so sure.  It seems more likely to me that Allen has simply declined in his ambition and ability over the decades, in a way that directors like Hitchcock or Kurosawa didn't.

Part of the problem, of course, is that he has simply been shown up by his own behavior - largely because artistically he's a kind of special case.  Allen's own personality clearly bled into his stand-up persona, which in turn bled into the "roles" he wrote for himself in movies (his extension of this connection into increasingly sophisticated romantic comedies was one of his great innovations, in fact).  Thus his films depended on the idea that Allen the man had some sort of romantic integrity, which gave Allen the comic the right to make satiric hay out of the follies and foibles of his age.  The collapse of his relationship with Mia Farrow, however, and his absurd affair with Soon-Yi Previn (now his wife), quickly pulled the plug on all that.  Suddenly he wasn't Woody Allen anymore; instead he was Tony Roberts or Michael Murphy - only he was still saying Woody Allen's lines, not realizing that the basis of that persona had ceased to exist.

And is it only my imagination, or does it seem to you, too, that not long after that sad scandal Allen's work began a precipitous decline?  If you believe in the theory of artistic muses, of course, the collapse makes perfect sense: it's a long way down from Diane Keaton, or even Mia Farrow, to Soon-Yi Previn, I'm afraid.  But even if you discount Allen's lack of a muse as the cause of his malaise, it's hard not to notice that in his later movies he began to act, look and sound a lot like the people he used to parody in his earlier films.

This I think is the central issue behind the failure of his last few movies (actually, many movies, as he makes one every year); there's little if any apparent distance between his comic targets and his comic heroes.  (How is the cultural blowhard who irritates Wilson so different from Wilson himself - aside from knowing more about his subject than Wilson does?)  And it doesn't help that virtually everyone in recent Allen movies like Midnight and Vicki Cristina drips money - although it's interesting exactly why this goes so wrong; after all, the tradition of American comedy in which you could arguably place Allen (which would include Capra and Sturges) has often dealt with the follies of the rich.  The trouble is that in latter-day Allen, there's little satire of their mindset - he may insult his villains for being Republicans (and surely no real American these days could love a Republican), but he seems to agree with them that the point of life is simply to cultivate "wonderful" experiences and preen in front of some kind of psychological mirror.  Capra and Sturges may have cast the wealthy in their comedies, but their money only made them silly, it didn't make them vain.

But vanity dogs Midnight in Paris in more ways than one.  Allen wants to conjure the romance of past artistic eras, it seems, while leaving out a crucial ingredient - pain and suffering.  Or do I mean the artistic heroism that comes from pain and suffering?  Allen seems to have forgotten that modernism was a reformist movement, born with the Great War, and that many of his supposed idols suffered greatly, or lived in various modes of squalor; legend has it that Hemingway for a time caught pigeons for food in the Luxembourg Gardens, and of course he and the Fitzgeralds were alcoholics (and Zelda may have been schizophrenic).  And things were just as complex back in the belle epoque (which Wilson also visits) - Gauguin had syphilis, and Degas was a reclusive anti-Semite.

But Allen wants to engage with none of this; the closest he gets to it is the funny moment when Hemingway (an amusing and sexy Corey Stoll) asks Wilson if he boxes (or when Wilson realizes that "These people don't have penicillin!").  But how Allen can treat his theme without it?  There is, of course, another theme that the director could treat - the idea that artistic greatness just isn't worth it next to penicillin; but he doesn't want to go there, either, because that would pour a copious amount of realistic rain on his whole pseudo-intellectual party.  And, I think, really hurt his picture's chances at the multiplex.  There are those who have seen the success of Midnight in Paris as evidence that art can still flourish at the movies.   To which I can only say: Bananas.


  1. Or after a long career in films and a great deal of artistic license, Woody has simply run out of ideas.
    That is how I see it.
    Serious big time auteur's are always the last to realize this, which is how great directors like John Ford make films like "Seven Women".

    John Galligan

  2. In "Annie Hall," which for my money is not a very good movie, Woody Allen indulged in what I think of as the humor of superiority. Every character in that movie is an idiot except for Alvie Singer and to a lesser extent Annie Hall (whose quirkiness is supposed to be endearing). I think the first movie after his portentous period (Annie Hall, Manhattan, and so on) that didn't indulge in the humor of superiority was "Broadway Danny Rose." The plot may have devolved into silliness, but there was real affection for the entertainment misfits and losers represented by Danny Rose. By contrast, I think of the old TV show "The Honeymooners," the principal male characters of which were two schleppers trying to improve their lives and invariably failing (except to the extent which they reinforced their love for their wives and of their wives' love for them). Yet never do we--or I'll speak for myself and say never do I--feel superior to Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton despite my advantages in life. I aspire in my way to the improvements in their lives that they sought in each episode.