Cassandra's Dreamer, Woody Allen

Dennis Harvey January 17, 2008

It’s easy to take Woody Allen for granted. The days when he could do no wrong as a filmmaker — or at least when even his failures were considered noble and ambitious — ended as long as two decades ago. He’s as prolific as ever, still churning out one or two features a year, yet one gets the sense that no one awaits each new one with baited breath anymore. When “Match Point” came out a couple years ago, people seemed surprised that it was good, even going so far as to consider it a “comeback” (as if he ever went away). More, the whole Mia/Soon-Yi/Woody mess revealed more about all those involved than anyone wanted to know. It left a lingering feeling that maybe one can’t, or shouldn’t, like him anymore.

Yet take a step or two back from Allen’s overfamiliarity, plus the unevenness of his recent films, and it becomes clear that taking him for granted is foolish. Who of his generation can compare in combined longevity of career, productivity, diversity, in consistently making films on his own terms, being at once a part of the commercial mainstream and indifferent to it? For better or worse, a Woody Allen movie is always unmistakably just that. (To an extent I suspect folks found “Match Point” refreshing because it had less of his personality stamped all over it than usual.)

Would writer-directors from Henry Jaglom (an outright imitator) to Noam Baumbach exist without him? Would the whole realm of “quirky” indie comedies? For all his celebrated raunch, even Judd Apatow owes more to Woody’s witty, neurotic sensibility than to, say, the latter’s leading 1970s competitor Mel Brooks. Even when just stringing gags together in his early comedies, Woody raised the level of the game, making humor intellectual and the intellectual humorous. Mel lowered it — not necessarily in a bad way, but in a ka-boom-cha!, willfully off-color way whose myriad imitators since have too often substituted stale potty jokes, T&A snickering, gay-panic gags et al. for cleverness. Without Mel, we might not have the gifts of…er, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, and “Norbit.” Not to set the two against each other like battering rams, but when history has its say, I’m pretty sure we’ll be more grateful for the legacy of “Annie Hall” than that of “Blazing Saddles.”

Apples and oranges, anyway. Brooks is currently recycling his old hits into mediocre Broadway musicals, having fallen out of cinematic fashion eons ago. Meanwhile Allen, in his early 70s, has yet another new movie — somewhere around his 40th as writer-director. (Between 1968 and 1995, Brooks made 11. And he had co-writers.) Advance word has been mixed about “Cassandra’s Dream,” which opens this Friday. It’s won some critical brickbats as well as a few staunch admirers; notably, the Internet Movie Database viewer poll scored a pretty impressive 7.5 out of 10.

But at the very least it’s going to be a new creative stretch: No Allen film before has focused so exclusively on male protagonists outside his own screen persona. The working-class English milieu is more of a reach for him than the sophisticated Brit upscale-urbania badinage of “Match Point” and “Scoop.” (One suspects his greater popularity in Europe than at home at this point is the real reason Allen finally abandoned his beloved NYC to shoot abroad; you gotta go where the funding is.) And all reports suggest this is an even darker drama-cum-thriller than “Match Point:” was. In it, Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor play cash-strapped brothers lured into a criminal scheme by a rich uncle (Tom Wilkinson). Naturally, things go horribly wrong. This may sound awfully like the recent “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” But Allen is one writer it’s safe to say does not purloin from others — his creative wellspring gushes too incessantly for that to be necessary, or desirable.

Whether “Cassandra” turns out a keeper or not, it will further enrich and complicate a filmography that should be the envy of just about any Allen contemporary. To be sure, there have been missteps, especially of late: “Hollywood Ending,” “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” and “Anything Else” were bad. “Everyone Says I Love You” was painful. Allen has made movies that were too slight (“Manhattan Murder Mystery” and “Sweet and Low,” elevated by Diane Keaton and Samantha Morton, respectively), too unfocused (“Celebrity,” which nonetheless had great segments with Charlize Theron and Leonardo DiCaprio), too motivated by stylistic homage (“Shadows and Fog,” a star-overladen tribute to silent German expressionism), and too humorlessly pretentious (“Interiors,” “September”). There are also plenty of lukewarm Allen films with a memorable performance or sequence here and there: Mira Sorvino’s blissfully dumb, Oscar-winning hooker with a heart of gold in “Mighty Aphrodite;” Hazelle Goodman’s hilariously brash prostitute (is there a trend here?) in the shrill “Deconstructing Harry;” the postcoital shrug of mutual disappointment between Woody and Mia in “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.”

Let’s face it, you could compile a Woody Allen highlight reel that would run as long as “Berlin Alexpanderplatz.” But in the interest of brevity, and for the sake of those young enough to have missed significant portions of his career, here’s a very subjective Top Ten list of Woody’s Best. I’ve omitted “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” because — well, Jesus Christ, if you haven’t seen those already, why are you even at this website?!?

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)
Best known as a stand-up comedian at the time, Woody pioneered a new genre by recutting a cliched Japanese spy movie and redubbing its dialogue with English-language absurdist wisecracks. Mystery Science Theatre 3000, pay your royalties here!

Bananas (1971)
This anarchic spoof of South American revolutionary turbulence is hit-and-miss, but it finds Allen really taking off creatively sans the forced pathos of “Take the Money and Run” or the conventionality of “Play It Again, Sam.”

Sleeper (1973)
Woody as Austin Power-less — a Me Decade mensch accidentally preserved and unfrozen in the future, where he has to impersonate a robot servant to Diane Keaton’s vacuous debutante. Her subsequent radicalization climaxes in a great Brando impression. This hit was a major leap in technique and cohesion for Allen.

Love and Death (1975)
The most unloved of his pre-“Annie Hall,” gag-driven features — but I love it, regardless. Woody and Diane are 19th-century patriots who defend Mother Russia by, eventually, traipsing off to assassinate Napoleon. A satire of both classic Doestoyevsky/Tolstoy Russian lit and Allen’s other inspirational beacon Ingmar Bergman.

Zelig (1983)
An ingenious construct — made well before the advances in CGI that made similar stunts in “Forrest Gump” and other films possible — this pseudo-documentary posits Allen as a mysterious figure who manages to cross paths with nearly every major public figure and event of the early 20th century. Seamless trickery puts him right there in the frame with newsreels of world leaders and celebrities.

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Another gimmicky construct, but also perhaps Allen’s most poignant film. Farrow plays a poor, abused housewife during the Depression whose only escape is to the movies. Then one day characters on the silver screen start to interact with the audience, our heroine in particular. The ending is as good as anything Woody’s ever done.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
This excellent seriocomedy has Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey as a trio of very disparate siblings around whom a large array of characters (played by everyone from Max von Sydow to John Turturro) revolve. Though a warmer film than Allen’s usual, it also marks the first time he cast Mia as a hyper-managing, passive-aggressive manipulator — a charge he would later levy in real life.

Husbands and Wives (1992)
The 14th and most definitely the last Woody-Mia collaboration (Diane Keaton would be called back in a hurry to fill in on his next feature), this came out just as their relationship was undergoing its very messy public breakup. For some , the discomfiting similarities between some on- and off-screen events overshadowed the movie itself. But it’s one of his most incisive looks at the whole man-woman thing. Allen, Farrow, Judy Davis (in her first and best Allen appearance), Sydney Pollack, Juliette Lewis and Liam Neeson are among the players in a brittle, surprising comedy of couples uncoupling.

Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
This clever Damon Runyonesque comedy mixing up 30s gangsters and theatre won Dianne Wiest an Oscar as a formidable queen of the stage. But it’s equally notable for John Cusack as the idealistic young playwright she sweeps toward fame (and/or creative “whoredom,” he fears). Other actors have tried (including Kenneth Branagh and Jason Biggs) to play the Woody Id, Younger Version without simply imitating him, but only Cusack has really made it work on his own terms.

Small Time Crooks (2000)
Allen’s last really funny movie to date is an inept-amateur-robbers caper with a stellar comic cast including Hugh Grant, Michael Rappaport, Elaine Stritch and Jon Lovitz. But it’s stolen by Elaine May as a wallflower relative and Tracey Ullman as the working-class wife whose sudden acquaintance with wealth takes on spectacularly vulgar material forms worthy of a John Waters heroine.