There is no filmmaker, living or deceased, quite like Woody Allen. Since 1969, the quintessential neurotic New Yorker has managed to write and direct one film a year. While quantity doesn’t always yield quality, the bespectacled auteur is responsible for some of the finest achievements in American cinema. In fact, even Allen’s duds are fascinating failures worthy of examination. With “Magic In the Moonlight,” his 44th feature, coming out on Friday (read our interview here), we decided to dive into the one of the most ingenious and puzzled minds in the history of the movies. These are the worst of his efforts; tomorrow, we’ll present the best.
Woody Allen could do no wrong in the 1980s. Throughout the decade the writer/director churned out one innovative gem after the next — except for “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” which may just be the nadir of Allen’s career. The title is a play on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the plot is loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” – although there are no traces of those two creative geniuses here. The only noteworthy bit about the film is that it marks the beginning of Farrow and Allen’s 13-film collaboration. It also marks the single worst performance she’s given in an Allen film – a piece of acting so poor she was even nominated for a Razzie award.
Filmed on a 26,000-square-foot set at Kaufman-Astoria studios (the biggest set ever built in New York), “Shadows and Fog” is Allen’s homage to German expressionism. It’s the type of enervating project that was likely scribbled down on one of his infamous yellow legal pads then stowed away until 1991. The logline? Allen plays a lowly bookkeeper wandering around an unidentified village looking for the vigilante group hellbent on catching a serial strangler. Madonna, Jodie Foster, John Cusack, Kathy Bates, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, and John Malkovich sporadically appear – though their presence is as haphazard as the film itself.
If the public was perplexed when “Annie Hall” beat out “Star Wars” for Best Picture in 1977, then I imagine they’d be outright apoplectic at the sight of Mira Sorvino’s 1995 Best Supporting Actress win for her role as a prostitute in “Mighty Aphrodite.” After multiple viewings, you might still feel bewildered by what’s on screen – and by Sorvino’s unremarkable performance. What did the Academy (and critics) see in this mess? By all accounts, this is one of the few movies in Allen’s oeuvre that actually feels passé.
In “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” Allen plays a démodé insurance investigator who becomes unknowingly possessed by a nefarious hypnotist, compelling him to steal jewelry in the middle of the night. The screenwriting in this aimless 1940s-set trifle is as somnambulant as its protagonists (Helen Hunt and Allen), who spend their days verbally assaulting each other with one acidic insult after the next. The desired rapport here is something Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant perfected in “His Girl Friday” — where pointed but playful, searing but witty zingers bounce off the walls from beginning to end. However, the fatal miscasting of Hunt prevents the film from ever reaching such great heights.
It’s hard to reconcile with the fact that “Manhattan” and “Hollywood Ending” originate from the same brain. In this disaster of a movie Allen plays a slumping director who develops psychosomatic blindness the night before the first day of shooting. Unable to halt productions, Allen clandestinely works on set with the assistance of his ex-wife (Tea Leoni, who left him for the studio-head bankrolling the film) and an Asian translator (Barney Cheng). The only element worth commending in “Hollywood Ending” is its prescience – this was just the beginning of the horror that was to come during the aughts.
“Anything Else” contains all the recognizable components of a traditional Woody Allen movie: white, middle-to-upper class New Yorkers conversing in candle lit restaurants about jazz, monogamy, and mortality to the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, everything that typically makes Allen’s films charming comes off here as cloying. Watching Jason Biggs struggle to get through overwritten monologues on life and love is only exacerbated by Allen’s grating presence in picture, playing a mentor to Biggs’ fledgling comedian.
An American J-school student (Scarlett Johansson) in London receives the scoop of the century from a deceased reporter (appearing as a ghost) explaining that the infamous serial Tarot killer is a wealthy aristocrat (Hugh Jackman). In turn, she falls in love with the subject she’s supposed to be investigating. It’s a storyline like this one that makes Allen enthusiasts depressed. “Scoop” is not even endearingly awful or mediocre Allen. The film is just prosaic, lousy fare from a man who, just one year earlier with “Match Point,” proved he still has it.
In theory, melding the comic sensibilities of Larry David and Woody Allen should make fore a snide and caustic slam-dunk. Spoiler: it does not. A Southern belle literally walks off the bus and into David’s Manhattan loft in “Whatever Works” – where, appropriately enough, very little works. The film spends a bulk of its time with David’s divorced curmudgeon imposing his dyspeptic worldview on the impressionable 20-something (a fresh-faced Evan Rachel Wood). Unfortunately for the viewer, that means enduring one long-winded, uninspired diatribe on everything from microbes to the Yankees to Christianity. It’s familiar terrain traversed listlessly.
As you will find when parsing through Allen’s filmography, there are some actors who are particularly adept at lending their talents to his prose. “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” however, is a textbook example of gifted performers working in a language (Allen-ish? Allenese?) they can’t speak. From Antonio Banderas to Josh Brolin to Naomi Watts to Anthony Hopkins, vaunted, Oscar-winning thespians struggle to exist in the world of infidelity, lust, and new love Allen has created for them. Moreover, there is not a single likable human being in this bloated endeavor.
Convinced he needed a break from the streets of New York City, Allen devised a plan in 2004 to travel abroad and explore new territory outside of the U.S. Bookended by “Match Point” (England) in 2005 and “To Rome with Love” (Italy) in 2012, Allen’s international hiatus from Brooklyn produced mixed results. While other films seem to have a local’s sense of the cities they were set, “To Rome with Love” seemingly adopts the perspective of a tourist visiting the Eternal City for a weekend. That lack of geographical intimacy bleeds into the characters themselves, all of whom obliquely struggle with various romantic entanglements and dalliances. None of it is remotely meaningful.
Stay tuned for our list of the best Woody Allen films tomorrow.