In Defense of Woody Allen’s Recent Work

I recently found myself in a conversation with a friend that went like this:

Me: Annie Hall is without question the best film Woody Allen has ever produced. 

Friend: No, you are wrong. Manhattan is by far the better movie. 

Me: That’s ridiculous. 

Friend: I’m serious. It’s not that I don’t like Annie Hall — it’s just that I think Manhattan is a better movie.

And then I yelled. And then he yelled. And nobody’s opinions changed. 

However, there was something he said while we were shouting at one another that stuck with me. “You don’t get it”, he snapped. “It’s impossible to look at Manhattan the same now that we see how his personal life has turned out. When it was released, no one knew he would end up doing what he did with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter. Back then, it just stood as a great movie. His personal life has changed the way people view that film now.” 

Those words were ringing in my ear recently as I went to see Allen’s latest, To Rome with Love. I had read reviews that trashed it and I knew that there was no place to go but down after how much of a success Midnight In Paris proved to be, both commercially and critically. In reality, it wouldn’t have mattered if Allen followed up Midnight in Paris with the massively lauded Hannah and Her Sisters, or the universally hated Stardust Memories. Most, if not all, of the people who have seemingly taken pleasure in panning his last couple decades worth of work would be quick to dismiss it, regardless of how truly good or how truly bad it may be. From the minute Owen Wilson’s crooked nose faded to black in Allen’s 2011 “comeback” film, Midnight In Paris, it didn’t have a shot at being worth a damn to anyone with a readership and a computer. 

And … I was right.

“Once upon a time, calling a movie ‘lesser Woody Allen’ might be considered a slap in the face,” James Berardinelli of the website Reelviews wrote. “Now, it’s more-or-less expected. In the last decade, Allen has directed two good movies: Match Point and Midnight in Paris. Everything else has been mediocre. To Rome with Love falls on the lower end of the ‘mediocre’ spectrum, if not below it altogether, and may be Allen’s biggest misstep since 1991’s Shadows and Fog… One typically attends an Allen film for comedy, drama, and/or cleverness. To Rome with Love is lacking in all three categories and comes across as trivial. It’s either a failed experiment or a movie that was rushed through production so Allen could fulfill his one project-per-year commitment”.  (“To Rome With Love”, 6 July 2012)

First, after watching the recently released Woody Allen: A Documentary, it’s hard to think Allen is interested in rushing out one project per year merely for the sake of putting out one project per year. The guy simply just likes to work and has stated numerous times that he is a true believer in the quantity over quality approach, willingly admitting that he works under the impression that if he keeps writing, he’ll eventually come out with something that’s pretty good every now and then. Allen constantly does his best to explain how much he enjoys the craft and he’s said time and time again that he knows he hasn’t yet written the best thing he will ever write (and at the age of 76, it should be clear that such an attitude isn’t likely to change before sheer mortality will force him to finally stop making movies). 

And secondly … what the hell do you mean To Rome with Love lacks comedy, drama or cleverness!? 

No, but seriously. These three aspects are all entirely subjective, anyway, so to say that all are absent from Allen’s recent film is an indicator of one’s taste rather than proven fact. Naturally, this type of thing applies to all forms of criticism — music, film, theater, art, etc. — and with that said, consumers typically look to so-called “experts” for an opinion to use as a barometer for things said consumer may or may not be interested in. But to find absolutely no humor, intelligence or intrigue in this movie is sort of like saying you didn’t find any value in the amount of four-letter words typically used in an Aaron Sorkin production. If you don’t appreciate the elements of someone’s approach and can’t recognize their relevance to one’s style, then why even waste your time putting thought into critiquing it in the first place? 

Thus, the following needs to be said: Can we all just shut up about how Woody Allen’s work in his latter years is inferior to his ’70s and ’80s output? I get it — Annie Hall and Manhattan truly are near-perfect pieces of cinema (and, full disclosure, they are two of my favorite movies of all time, as well). And sure, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Hannah and Her Sisters are both fantastically well-done and imaginative productions that are without question worth every bit their weight in gold. Hell, even 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway stands as one of the more entertaining films Allen has produced in his long and storied career. 

But discounting such fine gems as Vicky Cristina Barcelona and the aforementioned To Rome with Love only because they were created in recent years — and to think that critics and consumers may be expecting something other than a movie featuring a few different plot lines, off-beat humor, constant questions about mortality and modern day society, morbid turns, unhappy endings and a type of cynical whimsy that only Allen can produce — is ludicrous.

It would be impossible to offer up an Annie Hall every other time when your catalogue consists of more than 40 films. Hell, it would be impossible to even offer up a Radio Days every fifth time if your catalogue consists of more than 40 films. Some movies will be better than others, sure, but that doesn’t always have to mean that because some of his films aren’t classics that said films are worthless. 

In fact, it should mean anything but. Allen has proven himself time and time again as a unique filmmaker who has his own quirks and concentrations. He’s so often reminded the public of what to expect when you sit down with a movie written and directed by Woody Allen. If it worked so well in Bananas or Broadway Danny Rose or Take the Money and Run, then why can’t it work now, when it’s evolved into the modern day with Whatever Works or You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger?

Is it because he set such a high bar with his earlier work that he will never be able to escape the shadow of his own brilliance? Or is it because there is a new generation of writers and consumers who are young and didn’t grow up on his initial legendary run of films, thus forcing a preconceived negative bias toward whatever type of work he puts out these days? Is it because the older fans, writers and consumers were spoiled with that initial run of brilliant films that they have developed some type of snobby attitude toward Allen and the notion that if what he does today isn’t as good as Manhattan, it’s useless?

Or — dare I say it — has the writer’s unorthodox and controversial personal life immediately put Allen’s detractors on the offensive the second the final scene is wrapped and the first theatrical trailer is released? And, by proxy, has the number of those detractors grown exponentially through the years as Allen has refused to justify, recant and/or apologize for the decisions he’s made that have painted his domestic existence? 

It’s a fair question. Why else would someone complain about how Roberto Benigni’s story of senseless fame becomes trite and overbearing by the time To Rome with Love ends? The ridiculousness of his character’s tale is precisely the point Allen was trying to make with that story, anyway, and the most affecting way he could have done so was to do it the way he did it. Such was an indictment on modern day celebrity, and in turn added another level of genius to the fact that the joke refused to let up until the final credits appeared. “Benigni’s flirtation with fame and existential mystery feels like a slog”, The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Steven Rea wrote in his review. (“Woody’s ‘Rome’: Scene is lovely, story lacking”, 5 July 2012) What — and Allen’s Alvy Singer didn’t wrestle with the same problems in Annie Hall?

See what I mean? There are certain thematic undertones that have appeared in each of Woody’s films that will continue to appear in his current and future films, as well. The shapes they take will continue to evolve and (to his credit, mind you) also be masked by modernism and signs of the times, per se. But they will always be there, for better or for worse. Sometimes, they will seem more poignant and well-written. Other times, they will appear a bit convoluted and tiresome. Either way, their presence will be mandatory, and to think they might either completely change or be utterly forgotten about is simply wishful thinking. 

Or, in other words, if you love Annie Hall or Manhattan, it would theoretically be impossible to hate To Rome with Love.

“He’s still got it,” I heard an old man say as he was laughing to a woman sitting next to him in the theater after To Rome with Love ended. He was right. Woody Allen does still have “it”. The thing is, whatever that “it” is, is something only Allen himself can offer. It’s a something so unique and so genius that we should all know by now that there is nobody else capable of producing the same type of product, the same type of story, or the same type of picture. It’s a something that unfortunately may be impossible for people to fully appreciate until he’s gone for good and all we have is a collection of work for which we can lament upon. And maybe even more so than anything else, it’s a something that he has so clearly and consistently perfected over the years. 

It’s a something that he had in 1965 with What’s New Pussycat? And it’s a something he still has in 2012 with To Rome with Love. To think he’s lost even the slightest bit of “it” because of time, exhaustion or age would be sort of like saying that Manhattan is a better movie than Annie Hall.

And we all know that’s not true.

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