Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review | Woody Allen: A Documentary

Play it Again, Woody

By Thomas Delapa

Did you hear the one about the documentary that thought it was an artistic infomercial?

It’s no joke. You might think that in a three-hour-plus portrait of comic icon Woody Allen, more than a few discouraging chuckles might be heard. But in Woody Allen: A Documentary from PBS’ American Masters series (now on DVD), director Robert Weide doesn’t stray far from Allen’s corner—as dark as it might be. The result is a profile that’s long on fawning adulation and short on serious criticism. While rousing in stretches, Allen’s long take on life, love and death is a bit of a sleeper.

A TV director (HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) and film biographer of such comedy titans as the Marx Brothers and W.C Fields, Weide has said that his profiles are “personal thank you letters” to his cultural heroes. Allen should send a thank you note back (plus roses) to Weide, who surrounds his uber-private subject with collaborators and ex-partners (like Diane Keaton and Louise Lasser), critics (like Richard Shickel) and a fellow New York director (Martin Scorsese), who only have praise for the famed, partially infamous, writer/director.

Few, if any, American film auteurs have had the staying power of one Allen Stewart Konigsberg, who precociously began writing jokes for national TV shows and newspaper columnists in the early 1950s, while still in his teens. Though obsessively publicity shy, Allen evolved into one of the most popular stand-up acts of the 1960s. In this heady time of such game-changers as Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, Allen was something completely different, a bespectacled Jewish joke machine who looked like a cartoon character, yet fearlessly helped drag neuroses, sex and absurdist humor into popular culture.

Weide’s most entertaining bits come early, especially during rarely seen footage of Allen’s TV appearances, whether a 1980s BBC interview, guest shots on friend Dick Cavett’s talk show or, memorably, boxing a kangaroo. Granted a series of unprecedented interviews with the graying, gnomish, still horn-rimmed Allen (now 75), Weide talks to Allen in his office, his bedroom and, most nostalgically, while accompanying him back to his old Brooklyn neighborhood, where he reminisces about his boyhood home and local movie theater.

These trips down memory lane are bright and lively, as are the clips of Allen’s early film forays as writer/director, like Take the Money and Run (1969) and Bananas (1971). For some critics (myself included), Allen hit his artistic peak in 1977 with the bittersweet, stylistically ingenious Annie Hall, which won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Practically nonpareil in U.S. filmmaking (not unlike Charlie Chaplin), Allen has managed to exert almost total control over his 40-odd films, from writing and casting all the way to the editing stage.

While Part I of the documentary arguably ends near Allen’s professional apex, there are ominous signs of hubris, if not artistic petty crimes and misdemeanors. Interiors, his hollow follow-up to Annie Hall, echoed with gloomy, derivative Ingmar Bergman—his cinematic idol—while Stardust Memories (1980) dimly reflected Fellini’s trend-setting, autobiographical 8 ½. Yet even though Allen’s career has decidedly alternated between luminous and lackluster over the decades, Weide doctors the spin, inserting comments from gingerly uncritical critics like Shickel and Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf. One can only wonder whether Allen put any conditions on Weide’s supporting cast, all fans, including Allen’s sister.

Mia Farrow, his one-time leading lady off and on the screen, is naturally not in the building. Weide does treat the scandalous 1992 Allen/Farrow split that led to his marriage to Farrow’s college-age adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, but it’s mostly glossed over in fast-forward, as if it were all just a bad movie.

An apparent workaholic, Allen is barely done with one film before he’s on to his next one, especially now since he’s been able to obtain European backing for his latest films/travelogues. He believes in the “quantity theory,” betting that the sheer number of releases will increase his chances for critical and box-office success. This anti-Kubrick strategy has translated into a torrential output of features in recent decades, many flimsy and forgettable, redeemed only by Allen’s reliable one-liners and his near-mesmerizing ability to attract A-list actors, especially dishy leading ladies.

While Allen has assuredly taken a place in the American cinema pantheon, too little has been written about his penchant for arty, arch dramatic pretensions, which he regularly drapes over his scrawny plots like a pair of baggy khakis. Near the end of Weide’s non-definitive chronicle, Allen wistfully rues that he wasn’t born a “great tragedian.”

Seriously, Woody, you’re right.


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