Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Universe is Expanding

Scott Lemieux has seen Woody Allen's newest, Match Point, and liked it.

Allen guaranteed that some people would call Match Point his best since Crimes and Misdemeanors by...pretty much remaking it, albeit with a younger mistress and bourgeois user. And the self-plagiarism is begging you to mock him: there's the scene where the mistress threatens to call the wife! The ethical discussions with imagined characters! But the thing is, it's not like the existentialist anguish was original the first time either; it's what you do with the archetypical plot that matters. And damned if he doesn't pull it off. It really is a return to form.

Granted, it ain't Crimes and Misdemeanors. Not only because the plot is inevitably better when it's used the first time, but the first one had some great comic sequences as well, and the multiple plot strands added resonance to each. But that's his best movie...

Hold on a minute, Scott.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is the Woodman's best movie?

Love and Death was his best.

Sorry. I meant Annie Hall.

No, Manhattan.

No, Hannah and Her Sisters.

No. Scott's right. It's Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Except for Sleeper.

Well, one of them!

Anyway, Scott's probably right that Match Point is Allen's best since Crimes and Misdemeanors, because as everybody knows, Woody hasn't made a good movie in 20 years.

Not counting Deconstructing Harry.

Or Sweet and Lowdown.

Or Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, or Everyone Says I Love You.

Woody Allen has had one of the most brilliant careers in the history of American filmmaking and yet he suffers from a general critical disappointment. "Well, geez," goes the reaction to each new movie, "That wasn't as good as (Put your own favorite here.)"

When it's just as easy and more realistic to say, "That was fun, and a whole lot better than most of the crap that passes for movies these days. I can't wait to see what Woody's up to next!"

And you won't have to wait long. His next movie's right around the corner. While Match Point is in the theaters, Woody's at work finishing up Scoop. The man makes close to two movies a year, an incredible pace. But then geniuses tend to be prolific.

What I've heard of Scoop makes me nervous, though. All I've heard is that Woody's acting in it himself and Scarlett Johansson is the leading lady. But that's enough and it's alarming.

Please, Woody, resist!

A rule of thumb for judging Woody's movies since Crimes and Misdemeanors is that their quality is inversely proporptional to the amount of screen time he gives to himself.

This doesn't explain Deconstructing Harry (lots of Woody but good), Anything Else (Much less Woody, but mediocre), and Alice (No Woody, but terrible).

But it does cover Match Point and Sweet and Lowdown (No Very low Woody; excellent) and Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending (Wall to wall Woody in both; both regarded as disasters).

I gave the last two movies the skip, not because they sounded terrible as movies, but because I didn't want to watch Woody embarrass himself trying to play the character he played 30 years ago. Hollywood Ending sounded as if it might have been good if Woody had cast someone handsome and dashing, someone you could believe both Tea Leoni and Debra Messing would devote themselves to and want to sleep with and who could still do a pratfall---Kevin Kline would have been perfect.

Curse of the Jade Scorpion needed a younger actor who could have given a convincing impersonation of the young Woody.

Back to the point, the Woody Proportion Rule also depends on what sort of role Woody gives himself. If he gives himself a large but supporting role, the movies tend to be good to excellent, and this goes back to include Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah and Her Sisters.

So we have: Husbands and Wives, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Everyone Says I Love You, and even Small Time Crooks, in all of which, like Crimes and Hannah, Woody either played a supporting character or second banana to his leading lady.

Before I get on to giving my ranking of Allen movies, a quick word in praise of Julia Roberts. I'm not a fan of hers. She leaves me cold. (The blonde actively despises her.) But she's a good actress, even if the movies she's in usually don't call upon her to do it. And in Everyone Says I Love You she gives a lesson to young actresses who find themselves cast opposite Woody as his love interest. The way to handle it is to do what Julia did---shrink. Somehow she managed to turn down her movie star's high wattage and play a woman five or six years older than she was at the time, which was 29, a woman on the verge of middle age, pretty but ordinary, and vulnerable enough to be almost believably attracted to Woody Allen, sixty (!) at the time but almost able to pass for 10 or even 15 years younger.

I didn't believe Goldie Hawn would ever have married him though, even when they were both young.

I did believe they were good friends.


Great Woody:

Annie Hall
Love and Death
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Hannah and Her Sisters

Very Good Woody:

Sweet and Lowdown
Deconstructing Harry
The Purple Rose of Cairo
Oedipus Wrecks (from New York Stories).

Better Woody:

Manhattan Murder Mystery
Bullets Over Broadway
Radio Days
Husbands and Wives

Minor but Enjoyable Woody:

Broadway Danny Rose
Mighty Aphrodite
Small Time Crooks
Anything Else

Bad Woody:

Another Woman
A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy
Shadows and Fog

And the ones I haven't seen:

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Hollywood Ending
Melinda and Melinda
Match Point

I didn't list Take the Money and Run, Bananas, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex because they are apprentice works and although they've got lots of good jokes ("Tell funnier jokes.") they're pretty poor pieces of filmmaking, almost amateurish, in fact. As Scott Lemieux points out, over the years Allen has grown into a great director; whatever the quality of his scripts, his camera work and the performances he coaxes from his actors are tremendous. It would be interesting, if impossible for fans, to look at the movies he's made over the last 20 years and judged them only on their directing, as if he hadn't written them. Even Love and Death and Annie Hall are pretty pedestrian examples of filmmaking in comparison with Sweet and Lowdown and, except for Diane Keaton (and Carol Kane in her lovely, brief cameo in Annie Hall.), all of the actors in them ham it up and do schtick. Nobody else started acting in Woody Allen movies until Manhattan.

And I didn't list Stardust Memories because it belongs to another universe. It almost doesn't count as a movie. It's a dramatized essay.

I think some critic described it as a celluloid thumb in the eye of Woody's fans.

I also left out my favorite Woody Allen movie of the last 10 years, because it wasn't made by Woody.


Your turn.


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