Thursday, July 28, 2011

Annie Hall: I Get More Allusions, But This Just ISN'T The Romantic Comedy I Was Promised!

The Good: Some good lines, Decent direction
The Bad: Characters are tough to like, Poor on-screen chemistry, Incoherent narrative, Largely not funny.
The Basics: Light on humor and even lighter on romance, Annie Hall is a surprisingly bad romantic comedy that was big in 1977 and may be safely avoided now.

A while back, I found myself at a screening of Julie & Julia and the one lasting feeling it left me with was the desire to accomplish something I set my mind to. So, shortly thereafter, I started a program at my local library, which involved watching every film that won the Best Picture Oscar every two weeks, but it was put on hiatus when summer came. It looks like it might stay on hiatus and if that is the case, I had a feeling that I would never get around to watching all of the movies that won Best Picture. So, with the message from Julie & Julia in my head, I decided I would do a disciplined race to the end of the year and I would complete my Best Picture Project (available here!) this very year. That means almost every day for the remainder of the year, I will be watching and reviewing another film that won Best Picture until I have seen them all!

Today, then, I returned to this task by watching Annie Hall, which has the distinction of being one of my mother's favorite movies. It also has the distinction of being the film that beat Star Wars: A New Hope (reviewed here!) for the Best Picture Oscar in 1977. Usually, I argue that romantic comedies do not get enough respect and that there are some classic romantic comedies, but having sat through ninety-three minutes with only a dozen laughs, I am left thinking that Woody Allen got lucky on this one. As one of the films that supposedly everyone who likes comedy enjoys, I was seriously let down. I was more excited when I caught references used in Family Guy to Annie Hall ("I Dream Of Jesus's" scene with Jesus telling George W. Bush he knows nothing of his work is taken directly from this!) than virtually any other aspect of the movie. The reason for this is pretty simple. While I am able to appreciate wit, especially from nervous protagonists, Annie Hall is largely not funny and when it is, it is largely humorous in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with the main characters and their relationship. In other words, this is barely a romantic comedy and while it has its quirks, it does not work in far too many places.

Divorcee Alvy Singer is broken up about his breakup with Annie Hall, so he considers the relationship in retrospect. He recalls meeting her for tennis and the insane drive home. He recalls his first two wives and what didn't work with them and how Annie needs to smoke pot in order to relax enough to make love. He remembers how she wanted to go out more and how she began to sing because he encouraged her.

But Alvy is a nervous comedian and playwright and he's not as social as the younger Annie is. He finds himself preoccupied with death and dying while her therapist encourages her to live more and experiment.

Annie Hall is a love story told out of order, with frequent digressions and let me dispel any theories that I did not enjoy Annie Hall because of the narrative techniques. I love atypically-told films and I particularly enjoy movies that are daring enough to force the viewer to piece the movie together on their own by putting things out of order. Even with the weird digressions in Annie Hall, the time element works fine and the movie is not a challenge to piece together for that reason.

Instead, what Annie Hall suffers from is an on-screen couple that has absolutely no sexual or romantic chemistry, digressions that are far funnier than the actual narrative of the movie and a sense of its own self-importance (and that of New York City) that is almost embarrassing to watch. The first point is almost impossible to argue. Weird on-screen pairings can work, especially when the man is the weird one. Look at When Harry Met Sally...; Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan make the romance work because the two have great on-screen chemistry. Woody Allen and costar Diane Keaton have no spark between them on-screen and watching them together is like watching a romance where one knows the actors are brother and sister. At least as significant is the lack of scenes where their characters seem to enjoy the company of the other. Alvy and Annie are more often seen discussing or experiencing their dysfunctions than actually illustrating their affections for one another. So in addition to the actors not seeming to be into one another, the characters never seem truly drawn to one another.

The digressions in Annie Hall are one of the movie's actual strengths and they are funny. In addition to a bold narrative technique that sets the various aspects of the relationship between Annie and Alvy out of order, Annie Hall has social commentary thrown in that is off-the-wall funny. So, for example, during one of their early conversations, Alvy and Annie have a straightforward (if esoteric) conversation on the art of photography while on screen there is a subtitle of what each of them is thinking at the time. The difference between what they are saying and what they are thinking is cute. However, most of the digressions have nothing to do with the relationship. For example when Alvy meets Annie's family, director Woody Allen switches to a split screen to show off Alvy's family for contrast. While the boisterous Singer family is funny, it is essentially a callback to an earlier joke that poked similar fun at Alvy's parents.

Throughout Annie Hall the story is broken up by schtick wherein Alvy tells jokes and stories and some of them are funny. However, their connections to his relationship with Annie are only passing and the links are more forced than real. In a similar way, Christopher Walken's scene where he tells Alvy about his desire to drive into oncoming traffic only sets up a joke where Duane (Walken's character) drives Alvy and Annie to the airport. It's amusing, but it does not feel like the same movie; it distracts from the story of Alvy and Annie.

Alvy, in fact, talks more about New York City than he does Annie. More than being a romance between Alvy and Annie, Annie Hall is about one man's obsession with staying static in New York City. This is not to say that Woody Allen does not make some great points as Alvy. I completely agree with Alvy's distaste for drugs and the feeling that they are utterly unnecessary for love or relationships, but he is resistant to all change. So, he tries to change Annie to meet his needs. In the course of the film, Annie takes his advice and realizes she is too good for Alvy. The humor is subtle, but that's the problem with Annie Hall; it is either being witty about everything but relationships or it is utilizing such obvious humor (though I did laugh when Alvy sneezes and blows a whole fortune of cocaine across a room!) that the film might as well have a laugh track.

On DVD, Annie Hall appears as a double-sided disc, with one side having the widescreen version and the opposite having a pan-and-scan version. As well, it has the original theatrical trailer. That is all.

I'm glad I watched Annie Hall, but truth be told, it is overrated and while it adequately captures the look and feel of the mid-1970s, it is a fractured film with no genuine sense of chemistry and what sense of character there is is mortgaged by the lack of connection between the lead characters. There are other romantic comedies do everything this film tried better and Annie Hall might be classic Woody Allen, but it is only reinforcing the idea that I might not be a fan of his works.

For other films with Christopher Walken, please check out my reviews of:
Excess Baggage
Batman Returns
The Deer Hunter


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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