No filmmaker has fallen further out of my favor over the years than Woody Allen. As an adolescent there was precious little that was funnier to me than the string of movies he directed in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. And when I went to college and started to think about “film” as opposed to “movies,” I thought Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors were the height of sophistication. When I look back now, I wonder what on earth an 18-year-old kid from Staten Island saw in the romantic entanglements and philosophical quandaries of a bunch of pretentious, middle-aged Manhattanites (I don’t dare call them simply ‘New Yorkers’ as they existed in a world far outside the New York City I knew and loved). Perhaps I yearned to be like them; so witty and educated and gosh darn adult with their affairs and crises of faith and mortality.
But as I grew older they spoke to me less and less. The movies struck me as condescending and hermetic. They appealed to the tastes of small group of people who considered themselves intellectuals because they dropped poetry quotes in casual conversation and spun bad puns out of the names of philosophers. His films were the epitome of middlebrow art and I had no use for them. Aim high or aim low, but the middle of the road is nowhere to be.
I was curious to see what if anything had changed in the decade or so since I stopped caring. I knew that he had moved many of his films overseas as that was where his funding was coming from nowadays. But had the move away from New York City had an impact on the films themselves? At first glance it seemed not so much. Tall Dark Stranger has the same tasteful but unremarkable look of all of his ‘chamber’ pieces that take place in a series of carefully cluttered apartments and fussy looking restaurants. The story hasn’t changed much either -- unhappy couples bicker in circles while longing for what they envision to be a simple, pure love with their boss, neighbor, etc. Early on during a fight with her struggling novelist husband, Roy, (Josh Brolin), Sally (Naomi Watts) blurts out “Are we going to fight about this again?” and my immediate thought was “Am I going to have to listen to this scene again?” So when Roy starts to fall for the absurdly beautiful classical guitarist across the courtyard, Dia (Freida Pinto) while Sally develops a crush on gallery owner Greg (Antonio Banderas), I damn near checked out.
And then I started to think about Philippe Garrel, a French filmmaker I greatly admire who also tells essentially the same story over and over again in most of his films. Why was I willing to accept and even revel in the subtle tweaking Garrel makes from film to film, while I shut down as soon as I realized that Allen was going back down his same well-worn path? Perhaps because there is little else to consider in Allen’s films: there is no lyrical imagery, no graceful editing, and no matter how talented the actors, the writing is such that they all speak with essentially one voice, the voice of Woody Allen.
No, whatever pleasure I was to derive here came from the surprising dénouement of each of its main characters. Perhaps this is what has happened in the intervening years. Always a bit of a crank, here Allen refuses to let any of these people off the hook. Sally, Roy and Sally's narcissistic father (Anthony Hopkins) all get their comeuppance in ways both unexpected and satisfying (deeply satisfying in the case of ultra boor Roy). The only one who seemingly gets what she desires is Watts’ mother, Helena (Gemma Jones) and that is only because she is willing to delude herself so deeply via the manipulations of a Psychic. So, there you have it -- a small, hard candy with a pleasantly bitter aftertaste.