Having just seen his latest, Whatever Works, I must tell you that I think people have, for close to twenty years now, been too hard on Woody Allen movies. It seems to me that, thanks to certain of his activities in the early nineties, all WA’s films have come to be treated with immediate suspicion, as though Mr Bubbles had headed out and bought a canvas chair, put his name on it and blithely gone into the movie-directing game.
I do believe that WA perhaps shouldn’t keep aiming to make a film a year, but I thought that even before the child molestation accusations/Soon-Yi Previn business. I would advise WA to give us time to miss him; attempting to churn out this many movies has always seemed to me not only to be showing off but also to be courting disaster. Yes, on the one hand, if you make a movie a year, you, presumably, have less invested in each of them than you do in something you’ve spent ten years making and indulging in David O Selznick-style obsessiveness over. On the other hand, though, the law of averages dictates that if you make this many films, at least some of them will be hogwash.
In my opinion, WA is given insufficient credit for the fact that, considering how many films he makes, relatively few of them are hogwash – or, at least, not total hogwash. I can’t claim to have seen all of his films, but I do know that there will usually be at least one good thing in each of them, even if it’s just one admirable performance by a big-name actor who is ostentatiously ‘working for scale’. So, while, yes, I think that it might have been better for WA’s reputation had he made fewer films, I hand it to him for almost always managing to give his audiences something.
Out of the WA films that I have seen, the only one that has no merit whatsoever as far as I am concerned is Match Point (2005), a foray into drama about a young Englishman, Chris, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who, having married into money, murders his highly strung mistress, Nola (yet!), played by Scarlett Johansson. In my book, Match Point has a reasonable claim to be the worst film ever made: the script is ludicrous; several talented actors give the poorest performances of their careers; and I recall actually seeing Chris’s landed-gentry mother-in-law showily reading Horse & Hound! Nonetheless, the film won enormous favour, and why this is will forever be a mystery to me. I suppose the critics were, in part, giving WA credit for stretching himself by setting a film in London (the Thames lurks murkily throughout) and peopling it exclusively with goyim, but, really, they shouldn’t have. Match Point gives the impression of having been directed by an only moderately precocious child whose sole knowledge of the English capital is derived from the Old Londinium episodes of television’s Batman.
I wonder if the Match Point pats on the back were also given, in part, because humanity at large approved of WA again having a stab at addressing moral issues, in the manner of Crimes and Misdemeanors. Are there those who find it unseemly that he makes comedies after having, as, at least some people seem vaguely (and, needless to say, incorrectly) to believe, molested one adopted daughter and married another one? Perhaps this is why, at least in Australia, his 2000 comedy Small Time Crooks was greeted sniffily, even though (and I admit that humour is subjective), when I saw it, the other three people in the audience and I laughed ourselves into fits.
I recall a nineteen nineties feature article in Vanity Fair by Maureen Orth, in which she, aside from examining the truly serious aspects of the dual scandals, detailed how, for example, WA had once screamed at Mia Farrow for not knowing how many varieties of pasta there are. Aside from the fact that, were I MF, I’d probably gladly exchange some yelling over pasta for many years of gainful employment, I’d be willing to bet my left arm that, even putting aside any possibility of WA having engaged in criminal acts, he is a complete arse in his personal life. But, come now, who of us in his situation wouldn’t be? A friend of mine alleges that a friend of hers, while working at a Sydney bar, had an ex Australian Idol contestant ask her ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ The point is that I have no doubt that were I in any way famous, I, too, would behave in precisely this manner, so I can’t even imagine how discourteous I’d be if I’d had people telling me for the best part of forty years that I was a genius.
Of course, I don’t mean by the above that Woody Allen’s talents as a filmmaker give him the right to do whatever he wants as a human. It’s not that what has happened in his personal life is irrelevant as such, but it is irrelevant to the quality of his movies. I think we’re punishing ourselves more than we’re punishing him if we dismiss his new films out of hand before seeing them, or turn on Manhattan because Isaac Davis is having an affair with a seventeen year old. After all, WA still has pots of money and hot young actresses dying to work with him, so what does he care?
And, for the record, Whatever Works is pretty funny. Yes, it’s not the greatest film you will ever see but you could do a lot worse if you have the urge to take yourself off to the cinema today (and if it’s still showing by the time you read this, which I doubt). What more can you ask of a seventy-three-year old director with the distractions of a wife many years his junior (and who appears to be a strong-minded young woman), and the fun and games of having made another foray into adopting children, despite what happened last time?