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3-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“It’s such a shame that you’re going to have to wake up from this fabulous illusion. Just once, before the ugly curtain of reality drops on both of us.”

Such is the function and attraction of cinema. Cue the laughably orchestrated indoor fireworks display to illustrate and celebrate the sparkle that it has brought to your life.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion was the first film following the fairly acrimonious split between Allen and his longtime close friend, confident and recent producer, Jean Doumanian.  Part of this was related to Woody requesting a larger downside than the low seven figure sum that Sweetland Films, Doumanian and her partner Jacqui Safra’s prodoction studio, could provide (and far more than he was getting 10 years ago with the supposed trade minimum under Orion).  The far more significant part, however, was Allen suing the company for defrauding him of $12 million and much publicized trial.

Like he did with Manhattan Murder Mystery following his split and custody trial with Mia Farrow, Woody rebounded and distracted himself with a tonally muddled screwball comedy-mystery-noir-romp from the 1940s. Under a state of hypnosis by a criminal stage magician, C.W. Briggs (Allen) is instructed to orchestrate a strong jewel robberies from New York’s elite. The comedic set up comes from Briggs being the insurance inspector assigned to solve these crimes that he has no recollection of committing.

This was the second of his “amusing ideas” scraped from the back of a dusty drawer and this came in at a total budget of $26 million. What the most expensive Woody Allen film to date led to is, for me, a pleasant and pleasurable farce with a final arc that, against my better judgement, really charmed me. Dramaturgically it’s one of his most solid works of this era – the plot is lively and rolls along at a nice pace with good humour. It outstays its welcome with a dip of energy in the middle, but it’s a fun ride if you invest in this magical space where Woody operates in. Some of his finest work comes in exploring the ecstasy of fantasy to abandon the cruelty of reality: Alice, Everyone Says I Love You, Oedipus Wrecks, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Midnight in Paris and so on. That Woody is escaping his own harsh reality through his work adds an unintentional potency.

It is, however, as rapid in one liners as any other Allen creation, even if the batting average is much lower. Some are definitely home runs: “The place is a mess. If I had known you were coming I’d have had the maid rearrange the dirt.”, “I made a duplicate of your key, which you can have for no extra charge.” Sometimes, the best laughs come from the simplest and most formulaic of set ups:

Betty: “I was aware that you sneaked out to the office mysteriously in the middle of the night and the lobby guard saw you. I know you have Laura Kensington’s stocking and she swears you kicked her our of bed to take care of some sudden business, which your super corroborates. They have a footprint, a matchbook with your fingerprint and still I believed that you didn’t do it. But now the actual stolen property turns up hidden in your bedroom”
C.W.: “So what are you saying, this makes you suspicious of me?”

However, one joke is more memorable than all for the wrong reasons: “My clergyman, who happens to be wanted to pederasty, will vouch for me.” While the many jokes of this nature before the early 90s continue to suggest thinly veiled personality traits, the jokes following the allegations are connotative of pure hubris. Or a complete lack of self-awareness and basic common sense decorum. None of that is why he is so harsh on the box office flop, released by DreamWorks in a staggering 900 screens, that the film became:

“I have great regrets and embarrassment. I feel that maybe – and there are many candidates for this – but it may be the worst film I’ve made. I let down an exceptionally gifted cast. It kills me to have a cast so gifted and not be able to come through for them. … I went wrong in playing the lead. I would have been better off if I had less laughs and has a straighter, tougher leading man…And I felt it as I was getting dailies every day. I didn’t know how to get out of it.”

He’s certainly not far off. Allen, in his mid-60s, does not carry the same affable charm as he did in the similar throwback hardened romantic lead role in Pay it Again, Sam. In fairness, while he didn’t exhaust the casting process, Tom Hanks and Jack Nicholson did decline the role. You also can’t fault Charlize Theron’s conviction in playing femme-fetale Laura Kensington (what a lovely homage to Lauren Bacall), but the character leaves a lot to be desired. She is a dated caricature within a caricatured world where women like her are aroused by the advances of the elderly Mr Briggs.

This is light, escapist entertainment – but it also doesn’t challenge you to confront its messages like the films listed prior. Viewing it in the context of 2001, let alone 2016, leaves it feeling awkwardly positioned. Yet some fans can still be intoxicated by the withering fumes of an older artist playing the same predictable cards. Not for much longer, however.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.


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3-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“Yeah he’s street smart. His brain’s got pot holes.”

Allen has done, and continues to do, many things very well as a filmmaker. Yet what got him his start in the industry, and what arguably made him famous enough to showcase his assorted mastery, was his razor sharp wit and hysterical one liners. Reuniting with legendary comedian Elaine May, one of his nightclub scene touring partners in the 1960s, Small Time Crooks is the first throwback to a pure Woody Allen laugh-a-minute lighthearted comedy since 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite, and arguably 1973s Sleeper. As a modern ‘early funny one’ cousin to Take the Money and Run it’s a minor work among Allen’s more accomplished and resonant pieces in the last two and a half decades. He refers to as a “trivial picture”, which is accurate, but it’s harmless silliness.

Minor as it may be, the story of Tracey Ullman as disenchanted wife Frenchy, to Allen’s lowlife criminal Ray, is an empathetic one. She wants to better their life not by securing money as a means to an end (whether through bank robberies or an unexpectedly booming cookie business as the front for the robbery), but to become a more cultured, civilized and refined couple. The money enables them to enter high society, become a patron of the arts, fit in at a swanky fundraising dinners, embrace international opera houses and cultivate new friends of privileged social stature. Yet this wealth and social status doesn’t make them happy and they begin to miss the simple pleasures of their pastlife. It’s a film about integrity and who we truly are as humans; what our instincts resort to, at our core, in our natural state, no matter how much we seek change and growth and development. And owning that.

Notch up another slew of award-nominated and award-winning female performances for Allen: Ullman was nominated for a Golden Globe, losing out to Renée Zellweger in Nurse Betty, while Elaine May won Best Supporting Actress at the National Society of Film Critics Awards. Ullman, who was a treat as the giddy Eden in Bullets Over Broadway, is superb as Frency, with Allen describing her as “limitless in her ability”. She moves beyond caricature to embody a genuine person with nuances who’s working through her insecurities and vulnerabilities. It’s a skillfully measured performance with conviction and precise comic timing that give Allen’s classic one liners real pizzazz. She and her smarmy art dealer David (Hugh Grant) have some histrionic, hilarious and highly energetic scenes. It’s quite shrewd casting in that Grant someone you usually want to hate yet is often portrayed as a (faux) charming protagonist. Allen, however, facilitates your hate to be unleashed. It’s also nice to see Elaine Stritch return after her strong performance in the disappointing September.

It’s really fun to be back in this world of sight gags and cracking jokes: “You know you’re working with a genius, right? I mean, we’re all smart, but he wears glasses.”, “My accountants. Ray said to trust them as the whole firm had moustaches.” Yet despite the sweet and clever conclusion, including a satisfying wrap up of a story arc involving a Duke of Windsor flask, it always feels like it’s in too much of a rush to move onto the next joke or set up. This renders a lot of the jokes, and the film itself, fairly forgettable.

This foray back to trivial laughs would be the first of a four picture comedy deal with DreamWorks, following Allen contributing to the huge success of their animated release Antz a couple of years earlier. All were written at the same time after mining his drawer of archived draft ideas: “I’m getting older and who knows what could happen to me? I don’t want to have them lying around in my drawer as unrealized, unattempted great comic ideas that I never got to.” Most find the four films a comic low point for Allen, but there’s some charm to the first two amidst an artist surprisingly working to prioritise pleasing his financers within a confined creative space for the first time.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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3-5 star| Dir: Woody Allen

“Any woman would be second to his music. He wouldn’t miss me any more than the woman he abruptly left. He could only feel pain for his music. “

Following his successful foray into filmmaking with Take the Money and Run, a farcical audience pleasing mockumentary which showed Allen as a more than capable filmmaker, his desire to invest in serious work first emerged. In 1970 he pitched United Artists a script titled The Jazz Baby; a 1930s drama about an ethereal jazz guitarist. While Woody had full authority to pursue whatever creative outlet he wanted in his films – a freedom has has maintained and enjoyed his entire directorial career – the studio had understandable qualms about a man famous for his comedy pursuing such dramatic and esoteric work this early in his vocation. Allen empathised and gave us the rollicking Bananas instead. It would take 29 years for Allen to have the inclination to revisit and rework this early draft, even while dabbling with more serious work in Interiors, September and Another Woman.

Working with new editor Alisa Lepselter (who is still with him to this day 18 years later), Sweet and Lowdown (named after the George Gershwin song, which ironically doesn’t feature in this fabulous soundtrack) keeps the same narrative structure as The Jazz Baby – a well-rooted period mockumentary (clearly an early theme for Allen) using dramatisations stemming from anecdotal, fabricated and oddly-selected talking-head interviews (Douglas McGrath and Allen himself are the best people to inform this story of jazz guitar virtuoso, Emmet Ray, second only to his idol Django Reinhardt?). Allen’s proximity to this fictional story mirrors his own Allen’ modesty in feeling like he can never match the icons of cinema which he idolises himself – Fellini (La Strada acts as inpsiration here), Bergman, the Marx Brothers, Keaton and so on.

In its modification, Woody added some “spirit” and lightened the tone to bring more humour to the piece. This helped change Emmet from a purely a masochistic monster so that his descent becomes a less sad and bleak one. Johnny Depp and Nicolas Cage were considered for role but final choice Sean Penn is superb as the “self-centered, egotistical, highly neurotic, genius guitar player”, as Allen describes his creation; a deeply flawed, deeply self-destructive, deeply selfish, deeply troubled, deeply fearful, deeply narcissistic and deeply talented musical maestro. He loves the music but loves living the life of a musician more, to the shameful neglect of his mute partner Hattie (Samantha Morton).

There’s no shortage of heralded performances in Allen’s filmography, yet Sweet and Lowdown boats the strongest pair of performances in Allen’s work since Crimes and Misdemeanors a decade earlier. Both Penn and Morton were nominated for Oscars and they really are quite magical together. Morton appears right out of the silent movie era, leaving an incredibly touching and stunning impression. Allen instructed her to study the performances of Harpo Max, of whom she had never heard of before, which catalysed one of the most impressive and unforeseen performances in Allen’s work. Some of the comic sequences even play into the silent movie realm in their construction and execution, particularly Emmet’s set fiasco with the crescent moon entrance.

There’s a lot of fun to be had on the ride, with Penn’s criminal shenanigans and debauchery being played as sublimely as the music of Emmet Ray. Yet the films two best scenes happen towards its conclusion, bringing a welcome and bittersweet poignancy to the generally insufferable Ray.  After leaving Hattie for socialite Blanche Williams (Uma Thurman), he’s humbled in his naive and conceited expectations of being reunited with his former love with open and fawning arms. His discovery that she’s moved on, as if everyone centers their world around him as much as he does for himself, leads to Ray’s greatest work being produced by allowing all his regret, angst and sorrow into his playing.

This art vs. artist theme has taken an acidic turn in this 1990s period with Allen depicting toxic, parasitic and problematic artists. Bullets Over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity are among the others which plays off Allen’s own conflict of balancing artistic dreams and a satisfying personal life during a time of public scrutiny, which has not lost its fervor in today’s climate. Tom Shone in Woody Allen: A Retrospective summarised this brilliantly: “balancing his tone between admiration for the art and disappointment in the artist suggesting a candor only made possible by dramatic proxies.”

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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3 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“You think getting a blowjob from a big bosomed 26 year old is a pleasurable thing for me?”

Some of Allen’s favourite writers are the great explorers of existentialism; Nietzsche and Camus in particular. His own works like Annie Hall, Shadows and Fog, Zelig, Stardust Memories and Love and Death tackle this crisis as a major theme. But none does so in such a dark and pessimistic tone than Deconstructing Harry, where the title couldn’t be more self-explanatory to the film’s action.

Harry Block (Allen) is an author whose meaning in life we deconstruct, dissect and dissemble from his work. What a physiological minefield it is: homicidal, cannibalistic Jews; anti-Semitism; debauchery; self-destruction; adultery; and kidnapping, to name but a few of his fine attributes. Harry is too neurotic to function in reality and can only operate through his art; a distorted, manipulated one at that. Harry puts his life into his novels, with thinly veiled attempts at disguising the facts.

This is something which Woody is notorious for doing in his own works of art. As he states in Annie Hall: “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life.” The irresistible story of Alvie and Annie’s courtship and  fated demise is inspired by the real-life relationship of Allen and Diane Keaton; there is even a play written by Alvie in the film which romanticises their relationship and fabricates a positive ending. Manhattan is rumoured to be based on real life relationship with 17 year old Stacey Nelkin in the years prior (Isaac’s ex-wife Carol also writes a book about their relationship in the film). Stardust Memories was altogether a curlish response to his fanbase rejecting his newfound widespread popularity. Radio Days is a loving portrait of his childhood. Husbands and Wives transcends fiction and fact at a time of Allen and Farrow’s separation. Allen’s art bluntly “mediates between the need for illusion and the need to reach some accommodation with the real”. It all turns unbearably meta here when a dream (an illusion) influences Harry to write a novel (his art, another illusion) about a character who is effectively Harry Block, who is essentially Woody Allen, who is writing this entire thing (an illusion).

As appropriate as the title of the film is, the working title of The Worst Man in the World would still prove to have been accurate. Block is a shallow, superficial, deluded, narcissistic, exploitative, deceitful and sex obsessed man with little redeeming qualities. He justifies adultery as a disguised plea at more closeness with his wife, he demeans his wives as playing their part in a  “nice, solid, tranquil, routine marriage” and he even proves to be a bigger sinner than The Devil (Billy Crystal) – “I do terrible things. I’ve cheated on all my wives and none of them deserved it, I sleep with whores, I drink too much, I’m vain, I’m cowardly and I’m prone to violence.” He expects people to adjust to the distortion that he’s become, which in a way reflects Allen’s passivity towards his domestic controversy in that everyone should accept his moral misgivings with Soon-Yi Previn. Block is a fundamentally poor and thoroughly unlikable human, to the film’s significant detriment. But he is a brilliant creative mind and harnesses his odds against the world mentality – his inability to “transform reality to his desires” – into great art. In the end, writing saves his life.

Allen frames this exploration around a weak plot line of Harry traveling to a ceremony at his old college where he is being honoured, alluding to the story of Bergman’s Wild Strawberry’s.  With this format of storytelling, the structure presents the opportunity to meet a myriad of characters from Blocks art and his reality. Allen facilitates this with one of the most topically star-studded Allen casts for its era – Crystal, Kirstie Alley, Judy Davis, Julie Kavner, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Elisabeth Shue and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. As is common in Allen’s sphere, the ladies shine the brightest with big comic performances that mask the narrative shortcomings. Alley’s inappropriate and unwavering outburst at Harry, while attempting to maintain decorum in the middle of seeing one of her patients, is fantastic. And Judy Davis returns after a spellbinding performance Husbands and Wives; her delivery of the word “sewer” has never been done better, while her transition from struggling to hide her giddiness at being chosen by Harry to a turn of shock at realising she’s actually been passed over by Harry (shaky legs, dry open mouth, uncontrollable spasms, heavy breathing, fainting) is fantastically farcical.

While this mid-90s period is regarded by some as the beginning of an artistic slump for Allen that would largely run until 2005’s Match Point, there are plenty of creative ideas on show here. Mel being out of focus, the Death elevator scene updated from an unused Annie Hall pitch, real life characters meeting their fictionalised counterparts and magical time travel are particularly memorable. It also features one of Allen’s most famous comic lines:

“You have no values. Your life is nihilism, cynicism, it’s sarcasm and orgasm.” “Y’know in France, I could run on that slogan and win.”

On the surface, Deconstructing Harry seems in many ways the perfect conceptualisation of a Woody Allen film with many of his tropes on full volume. Yet it also plays like a b-side; a messy amalgamation of recycled ideas from a still talented artist lacking the energy and refinement to meet his peak standards. One could be much more satisfied with everything the film attempts to do from viewing a combination of his past works; Husbands and Wives for the erratic handheld cinematography, Manhattan and Annie Hall for the deconstruction of a flawed man, Hannah and Her Sisters for the rich and complex interplay between an ensemble. As Block says to his wife towards the films conclusion about one of his draft novels, the script lacks energy. It’s as if Allen is once again using his art to reflect his own life.

Part of Woody Wednesday. Second viewing.

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4 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“I’m out of shape, I can’t jog. I haven’t touched my treadmill in weeks. 572 weeks. That’s 11 years.”

It’s surely not a coincidence that the ending of 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite, with its Greek chorus led musical theatre number, transitions us into 1996’s Everyone Says I Love You – a charming trip back the world of the Hollywood musical. It has all the hallmarks of Allen’s penchant for blurring and battling between the lines of fantasy and reality. Here he’s doing it with the the lightest of touches within the boldest of cinematic frameworks. As Roger Ebert expertly put it, the film “dances on a tightrope between comedy and romance, between truth and denial, between what we hope and what we know”.

During the writing of Annie Hall – when every creative concept and artistic device was on the table – Allen asked co-writer Marshall Brickman “What if the characters just sang at this point?” That notion is recycled into the essence of Everyone Says I Love You so magically that you’re glad it wasn’t wasted as a throw away feature in a film of overflowing credit.

Woody has always thrived in the realm of high concept and big ideas – ZeligThe Purple Rose of CairoHusbands and Wives. Not since Zelig has he challenged his photography talent so technically as he combines rich mise-en-scene, trademark lengthy master takes and complex choreography. As Allen explains: “When I see a movie, I want to see the dancers in front of me full length. I hate it when they cut to their feet. I hate it when they cut to their faces. I don’t like angle shots. I want to see it the way I see it if I pay $10 and I go to the city centre and the dancers are in front of me. You know, straight on.”

Some aesthetic highlights include: Tim Roth’s fleeting criminal love interest to Drew Barrymore plotting her abduction one minute, then elegently and smoothly serenading her the next; a group of ghosts (and one urn of ashes) in a funeral home rising from their caskets and lecturing everyone on enjoying life while you have it – with kicks to emphasise the point; a series of children on Halloween singing as the characters that they’re dressed as; and the film’s artistic and romantic peak with a gravity defying waltz along the banks of the River Seine. Allen has not been so single-mindedly romantic since Manhattan and the result is cinema that’s sublime.

The songs themselves that accompany the dances are corny in the best way, playing homage but also gesturing of parody. They’re well placed within the pacing of the film, more summarising character thoughts than driving the narrative forward, but never overstay their welcome. Even Allen’s sole solo serenade – so gentle and vulnerable and almost inaudible – is rather sweet despite the obvious limitations of the performer. But outright illustrating those limitations was his artistic intention. Through the vocal performances he wanted to capture “the aspirations of your most intense feelings musicalized…If they sang like like regular people, that’s the idea”.

Despite these limitations, it’s Allen’s funniest performance since Hannah and Her Sisters; a more mature take on his inept, bumbling persona as he manipulates his way into the heart of Julia Roberts. The dramatic eavesdropping motif in Another Woman originally began as a comic notion when Allen was interested in creating something more Chaplinesque. Like he did with he unused idea for Annie Hall, it is recycled here to comic success. Although he had never truly gone away, you could argue that Allen the witterist also makes a grand return to form: “Yes she was a heroin addict, but I thought it was insulin”; “Minnie’s been dead for 20 years grandpa”  “I’m not arguing that. Im just saying if she calls I’ll be home later”; and the magnificent “I’m gonna kill myself. I should go to Paris and jump off the Eiffel Tower – I’ll be dead. You know, in fact, if I get the Concord I could be dead three hours earlier, which would be perfect. Or, wait a minute. With the time change, I could be alive for six hours in New York but dead three hours in Paris. I could get things done and I could also be dead!”

But all was not on new upward trend for Allen. Behind the scenes, his partnership with Jean Doumanian’s Sweetland Films brought with it some merciless budgetary compromises now he was separated from direct Studio financing. This would be his last film with longtime producer Robert Greenhut (after 20 years since Annie Hall) and costume Designer Jeffrey Kirkland (since 1980’s Stardust Memories).

The medley of stories among this family are connected by Djuna’s (Natasha Lyonne) character-led narration of her summer vacation, and it somewhat sweetly ties together at the end to provide a justification for the device – “You better make it into a musical or no one’s going to believe it!” On the surface theyall say very little with no genuine drama or consequences, but together they become little pockets of escapist fun. It’s quintessential Woody Allen, with a few jazz hands to boot.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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3 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“If Clint Eastwood wants to be hairdresser then just let him”.

After losing a year long custody battle to Mia Farrow over their two adopted children – and enduring very public allegations of sexual abuse on one of them – you would assume that adoption would be the last thing Allen would want to preoccupy his artistic time on. But the case of adoption-phobic sportswriter Lenny Weinrib appears unsurprisingly similar to the case of Woody Allen. Allen had often wondered about the origins of his adopted daughter Dylan, an unusually bright child. That brooding turns to obsession in Mighty Aphrodite, where a subject matter so personally heavy to Allen is treated rather lightweight on screen.

Finally agreeing to adopt a boy called Max, Lenny becomes preoccupied with discovering who this gifted child’s birth mother is. Max’s talent turns out to be the product of Linda Ash (Mira Sorvino), a prostitute and porn star who many others know as the tastefully named Judy Cum. Initially terrified of getting more involved with this creature, Lenny begins to take pity on her. Out of privileged hubris – with a dollop of lust thrown in – he plays God and attempts to shape her destiny for the benefit of Max when he inevitably looks for his mum. Because every child wants their birth mother to be hairdresser married to an onion farmer, rather than the star of ‘The Enchanted Pussy’. Larry, a man with a “full Achilles body”, begins to resemble the antics of Danny Rose in his fish-out-of-water negotiation tactics. The action is charted by a melodramatic and choreographed Greek Chorus (led by F. Murray Abraham), acting as an amusing moral compass for Lenny’s meddling.  It’s a fun comic gimmick that plays up the Grecian irony of the story by adding a little depth to its themes, but it largely serves to just provide some nice gags. A favourite of mine is them breaking out into an a capella version of “You Do Something to Me” while serenading a date.

Sorvino is super as the sweet, peppy, simple-minded, helium-pitched prostitute-come-porn star-come-wannabee hairdresser. She breezes along with endearment and energy while carefully balancing this with genuine vulnerability and emotional scarring; without losing either the humour or the pathos. She has a command of the screen no other performer here can match, growing this potentially one dimensional cliche into a well rounded and sympathetic woman. Sorvino famously only got the role after dressing up in character and forcing a recall with Allen in the plush 5-star Dorchester Hotel in London. Her reward was an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress – two in a row for Woody after Dianne Wiest’s victory last year in Bullets Over Broadway.

With her passion for helping disadvantaged children and avoiding over-population on Earth, Lenny’s curator wife Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter) becomes a surrogate for Farrow. Carter plays the character in the vein of Farrow’s mousey yet neurotic tone, with her voice even sounding eerily exactly like Mia at times. Her performance and his pseudo-fictional premise aren’t surprising when you consider that Woody had the bind gall to suggest to casting director Juliet Taylor that Mia would be the best person to play the role of Amanda. Taylor had the common sense to dissuade him approaching her.

The poster for the film suggests that “The sexy fun begins this June!”. It’s a tagline I don’t think Woody would include in his own synopsis, but as a description of what makes the film successful, it’s accurate. The scene where Larry and Linda first meet in her apartment, surrounded by a collection of hysterical phallic ornaments, is brilliant. Allen writhes around in his mistake, damned wherever he looks – at Linda particularly. The film also bears some of Allen’s most graphic language – “Well you didn’t want a blowjob, so the least I could do is get you a tie”; “So there I am on the first day on set and there’s this guy fucking me from behind right, and there’s these two hug guys dressed like cops in my mouth at the same time. And I remember thinking to myself – ‘I like acting. I wanna study'”.

But for all its accomplished comedic writing, the narrative regularly relies on typical Woody Allen contrivance. This can be overlooked because the action it facilitates is so regularly wonderful to watch, but the final 10 minutes here is an unforgivable series of rushed and desperate attempts at unnecessary narrative notes to conclude a fairy tale; Amanda leaves Larry; Linda gets beat up by her boyfriend Kevin (Michael Rapaport); Larry sleeps with Linda (despite his earlier concerns, he doesn’t need to be put on a respirator after making love to her); Larry begins to regret this and miss his wife (just like Alvie quickly began to miss Annie); Amanda simultaneously regrets cheating on him and they get back together; Linda meets her perfect husband via a miraculous helicopter breakdown and has a baby; Larry and Linda meet several years later, with Larry’s ironic punishment for his meddling unknowingly being the biological father to Linda’s child – just as she is to Max.

It’s all an embarrassing and odd mess that stumbles into well signed pitfalls, adding zero depth or satisfaction to the story. What’s most disappointing is how Allen throws away a sweetly developed connection between Larry and Linda – two people at their lowest pulling one another up – by going with the obvious, easy and cheap short cut. The Woody Allen of 1972 may be expected to indulge in his lustful storytelling incentives, but the Woody Allen of 1995 should have stronger perseverance and awareness. Out of all 16 of his Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay, this feels the most unworthy among that company.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.


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3-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“I don’t write hits. My plays are art. I write them specifically to go unproduced.”

Shadows and Fog, Don’t Drink the Water and Play It Again, Sam were Allen’s on screen adaptations of his plays. September was his Bergman-esque attempt to create the feeling of a staged play on film. But Bullets Over Broadway was his first time depicting the cut-throat and deceptive world of New York Broadway on the silver screen. It’s a fun 1920s period farce written (with co-writer Douglas McGrath) during the most turbulent period of his life, but set in a time that Allen has such an affinity for, almost as if an act of escapism: “It was just a great, colourful time. Everything was very glamorous. It was really highly sophisticated. So I like to set some of my films in those years, because it’s fun.”

Allen’s comedic introspective to the creative process begins with young playwright David Shayne (John Cusack), a man of unwelcome integrity and idealism in this industry. In order to get his Eugene O’Neill-lite new play God of Our Fathers produced, he makes concessions by accepting funding from mobster Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli) in return for his wannabee actress moll Olive (Jennifer Tilly) getting a part in the play. As David succumbs to the glamour of leading lady Helen Sinclair (Dianne Weist), Olive’s bodyguard Cheech (Chazz Palminteri) turns out to be the true genius behind the typewriter. Shayne initially rejects the suggestions from “some strong-arm man with an IQ of minus 50”, but the dialogue and narrative plotting are revolutionized through the collaboration. He takes it from a “cerebral and tepid” draft where the “lucid” stage directions and the colour of the binder are the only things worth saving, to a genuine Broadway hit; the Belasco Theatre where David’s play is rehearsed and staged in New York is actually where Don’t Drink the Water finished its run in 1968 after 598 performances. In the process it quickly begins to pose questions on the moral authenticity of your art and how far you’ll go to protect it.

Allen has often chosen not to step in front of the camera in his films, generally in his more dramatic work where he recognises his limitations as a performer. But this is the first time Allen has written a role fashioned for his classic persona, yet passed it onto another performer. There is much of Allen in David Shayne, who is effectively placed as Allen’s surrogate in rejecting himself as an artist. Shayne has gotten away with selling his soul to the devil for the accolades he desires. But in battling between artistic license and artistic compromise, he eventually comes to the realisation that he’s a fraud and ends his career as an artist. Allen similarly appears to accept his limitations of not being able to match the quality of the directors that he idolizes and his incessant proclamations of never having made a great movie that he’s happy with. Yet he instead chooses instead to persist, year after year.

After TriStar reneged on their three film deal with a year to go, Allen’s (then) good friend Jean Doumanian – one of his closest confidants and companions since his early stand up days – brought in her production company Sweetland Films. Backed by her billionaire partner, they provided Allen with his biggest ever budget – a 25% increase to $20 million – and a considerably larger seven-figure directors fee than his usual union minimum. This extravagance was put towards the gorgeous period detail, helping it to become Allen’s most Oscar nominated film.

The only success of those seven nominations was Weist as the pompous dame, the second time Allen has led her to Oscar success after Hannah and Her Sisters. What a difference between these two performances, going from the sweet and charming Holly to the narcissistic and praise driven dame. Helen Sinclair is a casting choice against type, similar to Farrow’s in Broadway Danny Rose, but how superbly the tender and naturalistic performer takes to histrionics and broad melodrama of this diva is riotously entertaining: “They’re your words. I’m just a vessel – they fill me!”, “Oh, I don’t know which ex-husband. The one with the mustache.”, “No, no, don’t speak. Don’t speak. Please don’t speak. Please don’t speak. No. No. No. Go. Go, gentle Scorpio, go. Your Pisces wishes you every happy return. Don’t speak!

Helen Sinclair is a big enough personality to fill any film, but this is one that delicately balances an assortment of big personalities who are more than just caricatures placed together for comedic effect. The ensemble playing them are unanimously terrific: Tilly as the arrogant, attention seeking and out of her depth Olive; Jim Broadbent as the humble British stage star prone to uncontrollable phases of stress eating; Rob Reiner as the deluded intellectual (“An artist creates his own moral universe”); Harvey Fierstein as Sinclair’s suitably sassy agent; Tracey Ullman as the giddy co-star who eventually begins to resemble her ever-present chihuahua; and Palminteri as gangster turned brilliant playwright Cheech, whose straight talking knowledge of the real world transforms Shayne’s pretentious writing. There’s a even an amusing cameo from Stacey Nelkin, an actress who Allen began dating in 1977 when she was 17 years old and supposedly inspired the story of Manhattan.

Despite this array of superstars, the film suffers from their lack of sympathy. The entertainment derived from them is almost akin to watching a season of Big Brother that loses it’s spectacle appeal. The second act picks up the pace but for the comedic and thematic heights that Allen intends his big ideas to reach, it falls flat. The ending is also disappointingly wholesome and quickly resolved for an artist who takes great pleasure in presenting the painful truth to life’s consequences. Perhaps Allen’s personal strife at the time gave him the impetus to indulge in a happy ending, but I think that Cheech would have some unpleasant comments for Allen about this.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.


Filed under Reviews, Woody Wednesday