Woody Allen releases a new movie every year. Few of them are excellent and most of them are hardly different from the others. But they work. Kinda.
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Just watched Cafe Society. Decent flick. At its best, it’s Woody Allen at his usual – quirky people, beautiful scenery, with the cities it’s set in acting as the movie’s main character. At its worst, it’s Woody Allen slouching into old reliables that have been outdated the minute he’d broken the fourth wall with Annie Hall – there’s a whole ton of name-dropping, there’s Jesse Eisenberg doing a Woody impersonation instead of a Woody impression, there’s the use of words like “cockamamie” and “melancholy” as if just saying them is good for a laugh or charm (like how Seth Rogen uses the words “vagina” and “weed”), and the film is as pretentious as it pretends to hate people who are pretentious.
Now, I love watching Woody Allen movies. (And just because I guess I need to say this to be safe, even if it wasn’t obvious enough, I’m not endorsing the man or who he may be. I’m endorsing his work.) Actually, I love watching recent Woody Allen movies. I love them because they’re not perfect and more often than not they’re pretty forgettable. But they combine to form a fascinating case study of one of Hollywood’s greatest all-time artists, a man who releases a movie per year and shows them all to us – even though they normally seem unfinished or rushed or maybe even traced from his previous work.
Woody’s films aren’t institutions on their own. Instead, they’re each steps in one long experiment – he’s figuring it out, often fucking up, and he’s figuring it out in front of us. Each one borrows from the last and blends into the next, so you come away feeling like none of them can stand on their own. (The Coens make movies the same way, and so does Tarantino, kinda.)
Few of Woody’s movies feel like films. They’re episodes.
Who knew? Woody Allen – whose most memorable appearance on television was in an episode of Seinfeld where he never appeared or spoke, but where his character told Kramer to read the line “These pretzels are making me thirsty” for a movie – is an accidental television icon. Netflix and streaming options have blurred the business anyway, and Woody was unintentionally way ahead of his time.
Which is funny, because in his laziest cinematic offerings, his style and his sense of humour is very clearly way behind our time. In Whatever Works, he has Larry David being a giant, neurotic prick, stuck in a socially awkward, sexual and marital scenario that would have been funny in 1977. In To Rome With Love and Cafe Society, he has his actors and actresses harping on about Hollywood’s Golden Age and saying the word ‘Communist’ as if the Cold War is still topical. (Don’t you know, Woody? Nobody is scared of Communism anymore – your country and army squashed it and shifted their insecurity onto another word, socialism.)
It’s unclear whether Woody’s movies are aware of themselves or not. Recently, his scrips have blasted ‘intellectuals’ and nostalgic people – people like Owen Wilson’s Gill in Midnight in Paris, who turned out to be a hero who was wrong about everything – while at the same time being in love with intellect and nostalgia. This would be creative if it was on purpose, but it’s hard to tell.
Woody’s best two recent movies, for my money, were the first two-thirds of his Mediterranean trilogy – Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris. (Some would say Blue Jasmine as well, and I’d agree. I just don’t think it’s *as good* as the other two.) Buoyed and led by honest dialogue and performances, cast with stars like Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Rebecca Hall, Owen Wilson, Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen and Rachel McAdams, who all knocked it out of the park and haven’t done a Woody movie since, each film seems like a house saved because it lived in the eye of a storm. They exist and last and entertain through good timing and fortune – just long enough after Allen’s best years, with enough perspective to draw from Annie Hall or Manhattan without tracing from them, and just in time before his jokes and dialogue got stale again.
Both thrive because nobody in them is pretending to be Woody. Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight kind of pulls from the director’s personality, but he never puts on the mask. Each movie’s plot hurdles toward its final confrontations and conclusions, whereas the other lesser ones fall backwards toward several uninteresting stuff – You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Whatever Works, To Rome with Love, and even Cafe Society, which I enjoyed. All of which I enjoyed, actually.
Because that’s the thing about this ‘experiment’ of Allen’s. Not every flick has to be incredible or excellent or even very good. They can be enjoyable without being important – they can actually be enjoyable because they’re not important. The man’s flops are watchable flops. And they’re not even flops. They’re just pleasant and won’t win an Oscar. Not really a crime but also not praise.
That’s why it’s important he keeps going, keeps writing, and keeps filming. Even though he hit the sweet spot with Midnight in Paris and could have stopped there, instead of playing the last month of the season with a 0.400 average, he’s not. The experiment has to go on.
It’s not about box office earnings or critical praise or legacy. It’s just about the work.