Primer: Woody Allen

Primer is The A.V. Club's ongoing series of beginners' guides to pop culture's most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This week: Woody Allen, the comedian turned actor-writer-director behind many films, including the new Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Woody Allen 101

Though his now four-decade-long moviemaking career technically began with the overdubbed 1966 lark What's Up, Tiger Lily?—addressed here in "Miscellany," where it belongs—any formal Woody Allen education must begin with 1969's Take The Money And Run. When people talk about Allen's "early, funny period," this is the model: A goofy, inconsequential 85-minute comedy that pulled off the not-inconsiderable feat of stuffing the physical and verbal comedy of the Marx brothers within the slender frame of a clumsy, bespectacled Jew from New York. Taking the form of a mock documentary, the film chronicles the life and times of a petty criminal (Allen) whose ineptitude in robbing banks is equaled only by his ineptitude with women.

Right from the start, Allen established a comedic persona that would more or less stretch through every phase of his career. Yes, he has depths of intellect and melancholy that don't surface here, but other elements are firmly in place: The runaway neuroses, the merciless self-deprecation, the bumbling physical hijinks, the ongoing feelings of romantic and sexual inadequacy. In a cinema full of glamorous heroes, characters like Allen's Virgil Stockwell (one of his funniest character names, second to Bananas' Fielding Mellish) were refreshingly down-to-earth, the personification of the klutzy, neurotic fussbucket that exists in all of us. Finally, someone to relate to!

Take The Money And Run is somewhat unique to the Allen filmography in that it has no subtext whatsoever. It's simply about stringing together as many gags as possible, which makes it lumpy viewing at times, but mostly confirms Allen as a gifted, energetic, inspired new presence in American comedy. A textbook gag about a bank robbery foiled by poor penmanship ("I have a gub") is the obvious highlight, but Allen gets a lot of mileage out of the faux-documentary conceit, from the wry narration and hilarious talking heads (especially his mortified parents) to the running joke that the audience is watching a filmed monument to one man's failure.

Allen stepped up his game considerably with his 1971 follow-up Bananas, perhaps the zaniest and most purely pleasurable of his early-period laughers. Once again, Allen plays an inept fool: an empty-headed consumer-products tester whose infatuation with a good-looking political activist (Louise Lasser) leads him to the unstable Central American banana republic of San Marcos, where he unwittingly gets involved in the revolution. And somehow, through a combination of dumb luck and one incredibly goofy Fidel Castro-inspired fake beard, he becomes a figurehead among San Marcos' rebels, impressing the girl after all.

Much like Duck Soup, an Allen favorite, Bananas takes a typical jester's stand on politics—declaring it all a circus that sweeps up the naïvely idealistic (or, in this case, horny) and deposits them wherever the winds may blow. It's telling that Howard Cosell of ABC's Wide World Of Sports serves as commentator for the assassination of "El Presidente" and Allen's marital consummation at the end of the film, as if both were equally absurd. But mostly, Bananas is a cavalcade of inspired silliness, with highlights that include Marvin Hamlisch's infectious score (with kazoo!), a courtroom scene where Allen breathlessly interrogates himself ("Does the codename 'sapphire' mean anything to you?"), and some funny physical business involving a young Sylvester Stallone as "Subway Thug #1."

Allen delved into politics again with his ingenious 1973 science-fiction spoof Sleeper, which takes place in a future world dominated by an oppressive, invasive government. Again, he joins an anti-government group less out of an activist impulse than a desire to get a few spins with Diane Keaton in the Orgasmatron. Playing a health-food-store owner frozen by scientists and awakened 200 years in the future, Allen shows off an impressive repertoire of physical and verbal comedy. Some scenes have the quality of a classic silent movie, like one where Allen wakes up with massive disorientation and muscle atrophy, or another where he clumsily imitates a robot to infiltrate the government. (He keeps his glasses on, which sets him apart from other robots.) He capitalizes on the futuristic setting, which allows him to speculate on mating habits and rewrite giant swaths of history. If the history books were rewritten in accordance with Sleeper, Bela Lugosi would be the former mayor of New York, Charles de Gaulle a famous French chef with his own television show, and Howard Cosell a form of punishment for high crimes against the state.

No longer content with simple laughs, Allen moved decisively into the next phase of his career with 1977's Annie Hall, which won him Oscars for Director, Screenplay, and Picture, as well as Best Actress for his effervescent co-star Diane Keaton. While refining his distinctive brand of New York Jewish humor, Allen turned his attention for the first time to a serious, insightful look at a romance that waxes and wanes, flourishing until finally, like a shark, "it has to keep moving or it dies." One of the remarkable elements of Annie Hall—and what separates it from every Woody Allen film to this day—is its loose-limbed, discursive structure, which gives Allen the opportunity to talk to the camera, move freely back and forth in time, insert random gags when necessary, and chart the full history of a relationship, including the romantic pasts of both people involved. As with all Allen films to come, its view of love is fundamentally pessimistic, but its tone is airy and accessible, and its observations universal.

The breadth of Annie Hall's influence can't be overstated. It's the birth of a modern-day American romantic comedy, where relationships are forged via banter-filled walk-and-talks and the male lead's idea of courtship is an extended stand-up routine. Annie Hall is to romantic comedies as Halloween is to slasher films—a great achievement that spawned a lot of bad movies. Allen's habit of breaking the "fourth wall" and addressing the camera directly has been similarly imitated, but beyond that, the movie serves as a clinic in how to mix serious insight and bright comedy without drawing too severe a line between the two.

Allen collected another Oscar for writing 1986's Hannah And Her Sisters, a dense, sophisticated comedy-drama about siblings who hurt each other while following their foolish romantic impulses. Mia Farrow is married to Michael Caine, but Caine's eye drifts to her beautiful younger sister Barbara Hershey, who in turn is committed to a severe older artist, played by Ingmar Bergman muse Max Von Sydow. Catastrophically, Caine and Hershey pursue their latent affections; their affair speaks to a recurring theme in Allen's work—that love is selfish, destructive, and utterly, tragically inescapable. The characters in Hannah And Her Sisters are slaves of the heart; it helps that Allen offsets their cruelty and pain by casting himself as the comic relief, playing Farrow's hypochondriac, death-fearing former husband with a typical absence of vanity. He also gives himself a sage line: "The heart is a resilient little muscle."

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Intermediate work

1975's Love And Death marked the end of an era as the last—and one of the best—of Allen's early, funny films, a period that would be endlessly romanticized in the following decades. Though as ramshackle and gag-driven as many of the films that preceded it, Love And Death boasts a growing intellectual ambition. In a broad parody of Russian literature, Allen plays a hapless schlemiel who gets conscripted into the Russian army and, through a series of comic misadventures, ends up conspiring with his wife (Diane Keaton) to assassinate Napoleon. It's one of Allen's funniest films, but also reflects his lifelong fascination with literature and philosophy while paying homage to his inspirations.

"Chapter one. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. No, make that, he romanticized it all out of proportion. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin." That's an uncharacteristically boyish Allen at the beginning of 1979's Manhattan, as Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" soars in a delicate duet with Gordon Willis' sumptuous black-and-white rendering of New York at its most swooningly photogenic. It's a rapturous love letter to Allen's hometown that doubles as a statement of purpose. With Manhattan, Allen self-consciously attempted the leap from great comedy-writer to great filmmaker. Manhattan flaunts its ambition as well as its pretension. A genius gag-smith had tasted the forbidden fruit of high art. His oeuvre would never be the same.

The choice of opening music is telling. With "Rhapsody In Blue," Gershwin made an analogous leap from pop and jazz to the rarified world of classical music. Much like Allen's best films, "Rhapsody In Blue" captures something ineffable and powerful about what it means to be an American, about the endless promise of bustling cities and their frenzied inhabitants. Gershwin's music and Willis' cinematography contribute as much to the film's success as Allen himself. Willis' daringly dark cinematography—as audacious in its way as his revolutionary work on The Godfather—sets an appropriately somber tone for a film that plays like the broody sibling to Annie Hall.

A moody, cerebral look at the neuroses and interlocked romantic entanglements of the smart set, Manhattan casts its writer-director as, of all things, a neurotic comedy writer torn between fresh-faced underage girlfriend Mariel Hemingway and angsty Diane Keaton, the high-strung mistress of best friend Michael Murphy. The flaws that hinder Allen's later work are much in evidence. Allen and Marshall Brickman's screenplay name-drops the likes of Kierkegaard and Mahler as if they're being paid by the reference, and the dialogue is sometimes stilted. It's yet another Allen movie where the bespectacled hero tells a devastated, beautiful younger woman—in this case Hemingway—that while she's, you know, beautiful, intelligent, erotic, and sensational, and he's probably crazy not to jump at any opportunity to be with her, she's ultimately too young and naïve for him. There is a YouTube montage to be made of all the scenes where Allen regretfully, stumblingly rejects the romantic or sexual advances of women young enough to be his daughter.

Yet Manhattan gains a steady cumulative power in its final act, and Allen's habitual self-aggrandizement is nicely undercut by self-deprecating humor about his lesbian ex-wife (a young Meryl Streep) and Keaton's sexually masterful ex-husband (Wallace Shawn). Keaton's lionization of Shawn and his sexual performance certainly goes a long way toward explaining why she finds the short, bespectacled, nebbishy writer-director so devastatingly attractive. Manhattan builds into a melancholy meditation on love, loss, and the eternal appeal of the New York skyline.

For all its off-putting intellectual airs and regrettable pretension, Manhattan is a big squirmy puppy of a movie compared to 1980's Stardust Memories, which chased Allen's 1979 Ingmar Bergman homage Interiors with a feature-length navel-gaze inspired by Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. It's an almost comically combative exercise in dreamy, free-associative autobiographical surrealism that spews vitriol in every direction, mercilessly skewering fans, film critics, studio executives, actresses, actors, academics, and the ignorant, unwashed rabble that makes up Allen's audience. The ugliness of Allen's fan base is literal as well as figurative: bit parts are filled out with gargoyle-faced extras straight out of a Diane Arbus photograph, though to be fair, Allen blends in with the ostentatiously unattractive crowd. Still, it's a strangely likeable wallow in misanthropy, a jaunty, lighthearted take on man's search for meaning in a cruel, unknowable universe. Allen's search for meaning often centers on fleeting moments of human connection and the timeless pleasures of art and entertainment, whether he's regaining his will to live after watching the Marx brothers in Hannah And Her Sisters or realizing that Mariel Hemingway's face is right up there with Louis Armstrong and Willie Mays in a list of things that make life worthwhile in Manhattan.

In 1985's exquisite Purple Rose Of Cairo, hard-luck Depression-era waitress Mia Farrow treats cinema as a religion, worshiping frothy, escapist studio comedies that once made a suffering nation forget their troubles for an hour or two, not including newsreels and cartoons. Night after night, Farrow loses herself in the fizzy delirium of the eponymous light, continental comedy. Then one magical night, dashing, clean-cut explorer Jeff Daniels comes down from the screen to woo Farrow in person. Allen's favorite of all his films is a lovely, quietly devastating, sweet exploration of the genius and limitations of escapism. It's also just about perfect, tragic undertones and all. In Allen's world, people inevitably disappoint, institutions lie, religion and philosophy promise infinitely more than they can deliver, but Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to "Cheek To Cheek" will never let you down.

In the 1984 farce Broadway Danny Rose, Allen's title character places his faith in show business, in spite of its shadowy depths. In one of his most charming performances, Allen plays a third-rate agent who never gives up on his stable of hapless performers—from drug-addled Puerto Rican ventriloquists to a small army of balloon-benders—in spite of their near-total lack of talent. Allen's luck appears to change, however, when a second-rate lounge singer (Nick Apollo Forte) gets some choice breaks and looks primed for a comeback. Alas, Forte's comeback is anything but smooth, especially for Forte's long-suffering mistress Mia Farrow. Allen agrees to act as Forte's beard, and in a textbook case of mistaken identity, Allen and Farrow are pursued by Mafia goons convinced Allen has stolen Farrow from one of their own. Broadway Danny Rose oozes affection for its lovingly depicted milieu. For all his accolades and prestige, Allen remains a vaudevillian at heart, and Rose lovingly, affectingly takes Allen back to his Borscht Belt roots.

Allen's love for old-time jazz pervades 1999's Sweet And Lowdown, a bittersweet comedy about the world's second-greatest jazz guitarist (Sean Penn), an insanely gifted idiot-savant whose idea of a romantic evening entails shooting rats at the city dump. Samantha Morton co-stars as Penn's love interest and the latter-day Allen's version of the perfect woman: saintly, endlessly supportive, and mute. In a bravura, Oscar-nominated turn, Penn plays an artist as unself-conscious and oblivious as Allen and his cinematic surrogates are neurotic, and the film compellingly chronicles the life and times of a man who might be the worst possible vessel for a truly astounding gift. The result is a return to form and Allen's best film in the stretch that followed Husbands And Wives.

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Advanced studies

A savvy director always know when to capitalize on a recent hit by pursuing a project a studio wouldn't permit a failure to helm. Hence Steven Soderbergh's remake of Solaris, made possible by Ocean's Eleven, or Martin Scorsese's New York, New York, produced on the heels of Taxi Driver. With everyone calling him a genius after Annie Hall, Allen defied expectations—and the wishes of the vast majority of his fans—by blowing his currency on 1978's Interiors, an austere, humorless drama made in the style of his cinematic hero, Ingmar Bergman.

On the one hand, Allen's refusal to be pigeonholed as a funnyman remains a bold act of artistic defiance; on the other, Interiors often feels unnatural and mannered, like a lifeless imitation of someone else's work. That said, there's a direct line between the sibling dynamic in Interiors and the one in Hannah And Her Sisters, and Allen gets an opportunity to address one of his favorite subjects—death—with a piercing directness that wouldn't have been possible in a straight-up comedy. It's an underrated effort overall, and far superior to the feckless one-two punch of 1987's September (a chamber drama so misconceived he had to restart the whole thing from scratch) and 1988's Another Woman.

Allen wisely retreated to comedy for much of the decade following Interiors, and even stepped back into the wacky élan of his earliest work with 1983's Zelig, a brilliantly conceived, technically masterful mock documentary that takes Allen's self-deprecating persona to its logical extreme. Using actual newsreel footage and a bluescreen that seamlessly incorporates his actors, Allen and ace cinematographer Gordon Willis create a revisionist history with a comical figure at the center. Allen plays Leonard Zelig, a "human chameleon" who's capable of hobnobbing with the elite and proles, and appears in photos next to such famous figures as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, Adolf Hitler, Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin, and countless others. Some complained that Zelig stretches a good idea too thin, even at a slim 79 minutes, but the film includes enough marvels to go the distance: On a purely technical level, the mix of vintage footage and new images is a marvel, and would be co-opted later for movies like Forrest Gump. The film also gave Allen a chance to dig deep into his record collection for the soundtrack, which also integrates witty original tunes in the same styles, furthering the illusion that the human chameleon really did sneak into the historical frame. But mostly, Zelig riffs playfully on Allen's savage image of himself; look past the comedy and there stands a weak conformist, present at historical moments, but doomed not to make an impression on them.

Still, the relationship between Woody Allen the onscreen persona and Woody Allen the man is tricky, and shouldn't necessarily be taken at face value. It's tempting to call 1992's wrenching Husbands And Wives his most personal film, a revealing examination of broken marriages made at a time when his relationship with Mia Farrow was very publicly falling apart. And yet it's hard to know who the real Allen is: From Take The Money And Run on, he's always put the worst image of himself on the screen—weak, ineffectual, clumsy, neurotic, inept with women, pathologically afraid of death, etc. Husbands And Wives just seems more personal because it's rawer than any film he'd made before or since, refusing to spin betrayals of the sort seen in Hannah And Her Sisters into easily digestible entertainment.

Employing a shaky handheld camera and effective documentary-style confessionals, Allen opens with Judy Davis and Sidney Pollack casually announcing to another couple, played by Allen and Farrow, that they're splitting up. The news has a powerful ripple effect, not least because Allen and Farrow always assumed their friends had the perfect marriage, and certainly one stronger than their own. So eyes start drifting: Pollack takes up with a ditzy personal trainer who couldn't be further removed from his sharp, headstrong wife. Davis goes for a sensitive man (Liam Neeson) with none of her husband's brutish qualities. And Allen, a creative-writing professor, takes a special interest in a talented and much younger student (Juliette Lewis). Husbands And Wives is full of combustible elements—Pollack and Davis are startlingly good—and a prevailing cynicism about relationships that curdled into misanthropy in Deconstructing Harry, but feels bracingly honest here.

Though Allen has always acknowledged and mostly forgiven the flaws in people—himself especially—he can be a moralist, too. 1989's Crimes And Misdemeanors concerns an ophthalmologist (a brilliant Martin Landau) who's been cheating on his wife for years, common enough in a Woody Allen movie. But his weakness goes much deeper than the usual Allen character: When his mistress (Anjelica Huston) threatens to reveal the affair and sabotage his life, Landau turns to his no-good brother (Jerry Orbach), who knows somebody who can take care of the problem. Meanwhile, Allen plays a documentary filmmaker whose struggles to make a movie about a philosophy professor lead him to a devil's bargain in which he's commissioned to shoot a profile of a boobish TV producer (Alan Alda). Similar to Hannah And Her Sisters, only much more severe, Crimes And Misdemeanors keeps the "serious" subplot and the "funny" subplot separated like a McDLT: The hot and cold sides don't come together until the end, when Landau and Allen meet at a party and their sins are weighed against each other. The strategy seems bound to yield a movie of schizophrenic tones, but the film is perfectly balanced: Both stories are strong, and the comic relief is especially welcoming after the heavy moral ruminations of Landau's actions. (The metaphorical nature of his occupation—an ophthalmologist who can't see—is a little much, though.)

Allen apparently loved the murder subplot in Crimes And Misdemeanors so much that he recycled it twice in quick succession with 2005's Match Point and 2007's Cassandra's Dream. The first film again deals with an affair so intoxicating that it leads to murder, and the second finds two ambitious brothers willing to kill in order to climb out of a gambling debt and realize their get-rich-quick dreams. Match Point was hailed as a triumphant return to form after an extensive lean period for Allen, and Cassandra's Dream was mostly dismissed for returning to the well one too many times, but had the latter come before the former, it seems possible that it would have been the triumph and Match Point the failure. In any case, both films are intriguing but extremely problematic: Working in England for the first time, Allen doesn't have much of a feel for the differences in language and culture. Either film could have been set back in New York without requiring much revision to the scripts. And though Allen attacks the thriller elements with confidence and a renewed sense of élan, the mechanics are a little creaky.

Still, Match Point and Cassandra's Dream both push issues of money and social class to the foreground, which breaks strongly from Allen's Manhattan movies, where wealth and privilege are just taken as a given. Murder become a desperate, last-ditch attempt to either achieve status or hold onto it, and Allen does a fine job explicating the reasons his characters are driven to such extremes. At a minimum, both films are lively and engaged, which immediately puts them a notch above most of Allen's work in the late '90s and early '00s, and suggest he's due for a comeback.

And, lo, Allen's new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, turns out to be his best in well over a decade—witty, sexy, vibrant, and somehow both skeptical about love and infectiously enthusiastic about romance. Unlike Allen's other cinematic adventures in Europe, the film wouldn't make sense in New York, since it so explicitly contrasts American and European values. As with any fruitful relationship, chemistry is everything: Allen always rotates his casts, but here he lands on precisely the right people for each role, particularly Javier Bardem as a libertine painter with the courage to proposition two American women at once and the charisma to succeed, and Penélope Cruz as Bardem's tempestuous wife, whose unpredictable moods are as fickle as love itself.

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Diversions

Though his work has deepened and darkened as the years have passed, Allen has never lost his fundamental impulse as an entertainer, and several of his movies are nearly all surface, all pleasure. To wit:

While Allen has sometimes delved into the past, he could hardly be considered a nostalgist; he admits to never revisiting his own films when they're done, for fear that the mistakes would be painful. So count 1987's Radio Days as a happy anomaly in Allen's filmography, an unabashedly nostalgic reflection on growing up in a world without television. Looking back affectionately on a middle-class Jewish family in Rockaway Beach, New York, circa 1942, Allen contrasts the hilarious cacophony of their modest home with the far more urbane and sophisticated world piped in through the ever-present radio.

Personally and professionally, Allen had a rocky relationship with Mia Farrow, but there's enormous sweetness and affection to the way he treats her in 1990's Alice. While Farrow was guilty of doing her own Woody Allen impression, her charms are apparent in a wide-ranging performance that finds her searching for love with the help of a Chinese herbalist and his magical potions. The basic outlines of Alice are awfully familiar—disenchanted housewife, cheating husband (William Hurt), available bachelor (Joe Mantegna)—but the tone is so wispy and inviting that at one point, Farrow becomes a ghost.

Having just made his darkest film in Husbands And Wives, Allen wisely shifted gears for 1993's Manhattan Murder Mystery, which applies the handheld aesthetic to a willfully inconsequential sleuthing plot. The story of middle-aged apartment-dwellers who investigate a neighbor's suspicious death was actually a discarded subplot from Annie Hall, so it's only natural that Allen used the opportunity to pair up with Diane Keaton—always his brightest screen partner—for the first time in nearly 15 years. Allen and Keaton's amateur sleuthing leads to many funny moments, often heightened by the fact that both are pitiful scaredy-cats.

For his next movie, Allen again went for another breezy comedy in 1994's Bullets Over Broadway, a broad period farce about a playwright (John Cusack) who compromises his play to accommodate a mafia organization (represented by Chazz Palminteri) willing to finance it, under the condition that the boss' ditzy, no-talent moll (Jennifer Tilly) gets a starring role. Allen's script, co-written with Douglas McGrath, has the right screwball snap, and the supporting performances are vivid, particularly Tilly—who channels Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday—and Dianne Wiest as a fading star who latches onto Cusack's talent. Suggested second feature in the double-bill: Barton Fink.

It's not entirely an insult to call Allen's 1996 musical Everyone Says I Love You "sloppy," since he chose to use the actors' real voices (save for an overdubbed Drew Barrymore, who couldn't carry a tune at all) and keep the choreography stripped-down and sometimes deliberately clumsy. Though it's still sloppy in ways it shouldn't be, the film gets swept up in New York and Paris at their most intoxicatingly romantic, and a few numbers really shine, especially Edward Norton's ungainly rendition of "My Baby Just Cares For Me." It's the rare occasion where Allen allows himself a happy ending—and earns it.

Demerits

Since breaking out with 1969's Take The Money and Run, Allen has vied for the title of hardest-working auteur in Hollywood, cranking out films at an astonishing clip and working his way through just about every genre short of tentacle-porn and steampunk. As a result, he's arguably directed more masterpieces than any other filmmaker of his generation. But Allen's unimpeachable work ethic and profligacy cuts both ways: He's also produced a gaudy abundance of duds, mediocrities, and flat-out stinkers, especially in recent years.

In 1972, Allen took on a unique challenge in adapting the ubiquitous sex manual Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* But Were Afraid To Ask into a ribald collection of sketches. The project took Allen back to his formative days as a boy genius pounding out sketches and gags for Sid Caesar on Your Show Of Shows, but the results are infinitely more miss than hit. Gene Wilder provides the film's sole bright spot in a sketch about a doe-eyed doctor who falls helpessly in love (or at least lust) with a sexy, sexy sheep, a funny yet strangely moving development.

A decade later, Allen once again stumbled with a titillatingly titled romp in 1982's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, a thin, feeble homage to Ingmar Bergman's Smiles Of A Summer Night, which also inspired Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music. Allen reportedly wrote the script in two weeks. It shows.

Beginning with 1995's Mighty Aphrodite, Allen alternated largely between affable mediocrities and hateful, misogynistic misfires. Allen was once rightly hailed for writing unusually rich, complex roles for women, but in the aftermath of that whole unpleasantness with Mia Farrow and Soon-Yi Previn, the women in his films began to inhabit a narrow range of reductive stereotypes. In 1995's laugh-deficient Mighty Aphrodite, Mira Sorvino plays an archetypal hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold who stumbles into the life of Allen's neurotic sportswriter when he discovers she's the likely birth mother of his beloved adopted son. Here, Allen's lovingly cultivated misogyny joins forces with his equally formidable classism.

In 1997's Deconstructing Harry, Allen channels Philip Roth's bile with little of his attending insight or wit. The film is nevertheless a towering masterpiece compared to 1998's equally hateful, even lousier Celebrity, a smug, brutally unfunny meditation on the empty spectacle of celebrity that combines facile observations about show business with paper-thin characterizations. And in the annals of bad Woody Allen impersonations, Kenneth Branagh's is unquestionably the worst.

With 2000's Small Time Crooks, Woody Allen seemingly took a cue from the aliens in Stardust Memories and their love of his early, funny films by returning to the goofy, gag-driven broad comedy from his pre-Annie Hall days. But Allen's comic chops had atrophied. A filmmaker who once conjured up huge laughs effortlessly was now struggling mightily to generate even the meekest chuckles. Fans who pined for years for the return of the funny Allen must have found Crooks doubly disappointing.

Small Time Crooks set the tone for the string of mediocrities that followed. 2001's Curse Of The Jade Scorpion found the stubbornly old-fashioned filmmaker once again drawing inspiration from show business' misty past in a genial yet wholly uninspired period comic mystery about an insurance investigator and an efficiency expert hypnotized into committing crimes—a plot that inexplicably failed to resonate with contemporary audiences, even though it boasted the largest budget of any Allen film to date.

Allen's losing streak continued with 2002's Hollywood Ending, another feeble show-biz spoof about an over-the-hill, Peter Bogdanovich-like director (Allen) who snags a plum directing job and must hide his blindness in order to hold onto the job. It's an eminently forgettable light comedy fortified with hopelessly geriatric physical comedy. Allen fans once expected greatness: Each new project radiated potential. Yet by this point in his career, fans were all-too-grateful for anything that wasn't too egregiously awful or malicious.

The veteran gag-smith/deep thinker reached a professional nadir with 2003's barely-released Anything Else, a film that found Allen shamelessly cannibalizing his past. In this case, he essentially remade Annie Hall with American Pie's Jason Biggs in the Allen role as a 21-year-old divorced comedy writer (huh?), and Christina Ricci as his succubus girlfriend. Like Deconstructing Harry, Anything Else is notable mainly for its exceedingly ugly take on the human condition, and also for the casting of Allen as a paranoid gun-nut who sees an anti-Semitic conspiracy around every corner. But bleakness is no substitute for funny, and Anything Else radiates creative exhaustion. On the plus side, it left him nowhere to go but up.

In 2005, Allen couldn't decide whether he wanted to make another mediocre comedy or a painfully stilted, pretentious drama, so he combined the two in Melinda And Melinda. The film opens with Wallace Shawn and his egghead pals arguing whether the essence of life is fundamentally dramatic or comic, an argument dramatized (in the loosest sense) by dual narratives—one faintly comic, the other ostensibly dramatic—about Radha Mitchell's troubled single woman and her quest for love. Gigantic WASP Will Ferrell makes a surprisingly inspired Allen doppelgänger, but otherwise, this is the kind of experiment that should have been abandoned early on.

By late-Allen standards, the breezy 2007 comic mystery Scoop isn't half-bad, though that says more about how far Allen expectations have fallen than it does about the film's quality. It's a featherweight romp that casts Allen as the Great Splendini, a hack magician embroiled in intrigue involving Ian McShane (a legendary journalist pursuing one last scoop from beyond the grave), college reporter Scarlett Johansson (unconvincingly cast as the scion of an Orthodox Jewish family), and Hugh Jackman, a wealthy playboy who may or may not be the infamous Tarot Card Serial Killer. It repeatedly brings audiences to the verge of laughter, only to strand them there, though Allen's string of invented revelations about fake-daughter Johansson is a consistent source of mild amusement.

Miscellany

Woody Allen has shown little interest in contemporary popular culture in the past few decades, but he was unmistakably plugged into the zeitgeist early in his career. The collection Stand-Up Comic compiles classic, early routines that radiate brainy geek-chic and a finely honed persona that combined a Catskills comedian's genius for rib-tickling one-liners with a philosophy graduate student's heady concerns.

Though it can be hard to conceive of this quintessential neurotic as a Swinging '60s kind of guy, Allen veered shockingly close to being groovy in 1965's What's New Pussycat, a libidinal farce about a guilt-stricken womanizer (Peter O'Toole) who enters a unorthodox form of treatment with a kooky shrink (Peter Sellers) in a bid to leave his cheating ways behind so he can give himself over completely to his fiancée. Allen wrote a sizable supporting part for himself that was whittled down once Sellers—a much bigger star at the time—decided he'd rather deliver Allen's choicest lines himself. The result, a funny but fatally compromised romp, led to Allen pursuing more and more control over later projects.

Allen hooked up with an all-star cast (including his nemesis Sellers) in 1967's overwrought, overstuffed James Bond spoof Casino Royale, playing a sex-crazed self-caricature obsessed with eliminating his romantic competition, even if it meant destroying much of the world. Along with seemingly every other prominent writer in Hollywood, Allen worked on the script, but precious little of his comic sensibility survived the muddled, big-budget excess.

Allen's directorial debut of sorts, 1966's What's Up, Tiger Lily?, once again found him struggling to put his brainy, absurdist stamp on someone else's material, in this case a '60s Japanese spy thriller Allen and co-writer Mickey Rose reconceived and overdubbed as a zany search for the world's greatest egg-salad recipe. Though the film has its fans, it's an awfully inauspicious beginning for a legendary directorial career.

Throughout the '60s and '70s, Allen thrived in multiple mediums. He conquered the worlds of theater, television, movies, nightclubs, and the written word. Classic collections of short comic pieces like Without Feathers and Side Effects introduced multiple generations to the joys of literary humor through bits like "The Whore Of Mensa," about prostitutes who promise to get customers off intellectually instead of sexually. Bits and pieces of Allen's literary fiction appear in several of his movies, while the one-act play "Death" became the basis for 1992's indifferently received Shadows And Fog, an extended homage to German Expressionism.

After Allen's frustrating experience with What's New Pussycat?, he appeared primarily in his own films. But he's branched out with appearances in other directors' work on occasion. In 1975's The Front, Allen contributed a well-received dramatic lead performance as a bookie who acts as a front for friend Michael Murphy and a number of other blacklisted writers. The film took on a personal dimension for co-star Zero Mostel and writer Walter Bernstein, both of whom had been blacklisted themselves.

During his mid-'90s doldrums, Allen took a big step backward by returning to television with a pair of modest TV movies, a 1994 adaptation of his Cold War spoof Don't Drink The Water, which had previously been adapted for the big screen in 1969 with Jackie Gleason in the lead role, and 1995's The Sunshine Boys, which cast him opposite Peter Falk. In John Erman's adaptation of the classic play by Neil Simon—another distinguished alumnus of Your Show Of Shows—the two men play a legendary comedy duo that reunites after decades of acrimony.

Allen played (or at least voiced) a cartoon version of his fussy, anxious persona in the 1998 computer-animated hit Antz, DreamWorks' answer to Pixar's far superior A Bug's Life. The schlocky result was nevertheless one of the biggest commercial hits of Allen's career. It also introduced his time-tested shtick to a new generation of youngsters. Then again, Antz was a big step up from 1991's Scenes From A Mall, a failed comedy-drama that cast Allen as a surfboard-toting, pony-tailed yuppie whose marriage to Bette Midler falls apart, then comes back together during an eventful, disturbingly sex-filled day at a Southern Californian mall.

Given Allen's venerability and ubiquity, it's not surprising that he's been spoofed extensively in television and film. SCTV contributed perhaps the greatest Woody Allen spoof in its classic send-up of the Allen-penned movie Play It Again, Sam with "Play It Again, Bob" a loving homage that imagines Rick Moranis' uncannily accurate Woody Allen teaming up with Dave Thomas' equally genius Bob Hope—a huge, oft-overlooked influence on Allen's humor and persona—to make a film that'll finally nab Hope a long-overdue Oscar.

The Ben Stiller Show, a proud acolyte of SCTV, produced a genius Allen spoof of its own by cross-pollinating Husbands And Wives with Universal horror movies. It's a pitch-perfect recreation of horror-movie archetypes and the raw, voyeuristic, John Cassavetes-inspired intensity of what may have been Allen's last masterpiece. Allen doesn't show any sign of slowing down, let alone retiring, but even after he's gone, his influence will live on.

The Essentials

1. Annie Hall (1977)

In this great evolutionary step forward, Allen moved beyond the vaudevillian shtick of his early films to a new dramatic and emotional richness while diligently preserving the funny. It's a valentine to Diane Keaton at her most irresistible, a jaundiced New Yorker's take on the vast intellectual wasteland that is Los Angeles, and a playfully postmodern comedy with a big, vital heart.

2. Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985)

Like 1980's shamefully underrated Pennies From Heaven, Allen's 1984 masterpiece eked bottomless pathos and surprising humor out of the unbridgeable gulf between the dizzy, sophisticated movies of the Depression and the ever-suffering dreamers in the audience.

3. Hannah And Her Sisters (1986)

Perfectly integrating a serious take on familial and romantic relationships with deft comedic business, Allen's comedy-drama orchestrates a complicated series of loves and betrayals with clarity and sophistication.

4. Bananas (1972)

Allen paid homage to the wiseass, anarchic spirit of his heroes the Marx brothers, specifically Duck Soup (which also appears in a key scene in Hannah And Her Sisters), in this zany 1971 political satire.

5. Husbands And Wives (1992)

The public collapse of Allen's marriage to Mia Farrow brought an unvarnished immediacy to his 1992 drama, which unloads so much emotional baggage that he spent subsequent years fleeing to inconsequential comedies.

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