Two years after Annie Hall, Woody Allen returned to comedy with Manhattan, a film with many of the same interests but played out in different ways. Of course, Allen’s films tend to have similar, well vocalized interests. What they explore or discuss is never hard to place, and Manhattan, perhaps better than any other Allen film that I’ve seen, is thick with coherent threads concerning intellectualism, self presentation, and the difficulties and absurdities of relationships.
The city itself is meant to play a large role. Allen’s character Isaac opens the film as a voice over stunning landscapes of Manhattan. He discusses his feelings for the city, reworking his wording several times over. Isaac, like the other characters in Manhattan, may feel inseparable from the city, but that doesn’t translate to an on screen importance. There are at times wonderful shots, but the characters spend most of their time indoors. The film may well be a wonderful expression of a New Yorker’s memory of the city, but to those without knowledge of tired late night taxi rides, it serves only as a fine setting.
Even so, the visuals of Manhattan can be quite striking. We can feel the dreaminess and the fondness as they ride slowly down the exit of a highway. While much of the film is straightforward visually, there are many distinct and strong shots. Great use is made of light and dark. At times much of the screen will be entirely dark, only splotches of light will reveal the actors and set. There is an amazing shot inside a museum exhibit that is made to look as though Isaac and Mary are walking among the cosmos.
The film is thick with Allen’s recurring intellectual/pseudo-intellectual dialogue. Sometimes they’re just listing names, Kierkegaard, Bergman, other times they’re actually discussed. Freud is the butt of jokes, Mary uses a refrain that personifies Philadelphia. Would they save someone drowning in a river? It’s all a bit difficult to navigate, and the characters speak this way almost relentlessly. The navigation seems to be part of what Manhattan is curious about discussing. Isaac finds Mary’s opinions trite, but once he’s attracted to her, it’s an entirely different story.
Throughout the film, Isaac, twice divorced, is dating a seventeen year old named Tracy. Oddly, her age is an obstacle no more than her having the wrong hair color. It’s never implied to be weird or inappropriate even by outsiders. This speaks loudly to who Isaac is. He complains to Tracy about others spewing their incorrect opinions onto others. She’s quiet and doesn’t know much. As the film continues though, she’s the one who is able to make demands, while Isaac skirts around them. Tracy is taller than him, she’s more sexually active, she calls Isaac out for not telling her where their relationship is going. This navigation of relationships, hidden feelings, hidden goals, and what goes unsaid, is spoken to heavily in Manhattan. Everyone is sleeping with someone else. Mary tells Isaac she saw Yale once, Yale tells Isaac it was a few times. Even when they’re together, they’re separated by walls, talking to one another from a small distance.
Allen’s films are often soft in their endings, trailing off whenever they seem to have accomplished plenty. Here, there is a turn toward something more conclusive, but it fails to appropriately speak to what the rest of the film has built to. Tracy and Isaac are an impossible couple. She offered him nothing but a slate to imprint and enjoy, and it’s odd to see Isaac forgetting this after spending much of the film learning it. However, there’s a smart moment between Isaac and Yale’s wife that speaks to the twists and turns of relationships. It’s a small moment that sums up what we’ve seen Isaac go through in regard to both Mary and the more excited stories we’ve heard about him and his ex-wife.
Manhattan is a joy to watch. It’s filled with smart dialogue, and though it isn’t hilarious straight through, jokes wonderfully punctuate unexpected moments. This speaks to the fact that Manhattan is quite closely about relationships. We watch these people talk to and around one another. Much of the discussion may be toward culture, but whether we understand them or not, we can see the rapport develop. Even if Manhattan doesn’t wrap up tightly or perfectly convey the city as a motivator of these complexities, it serves as a fine memory of the city for those who don’t yet have their own.
Woody Allen’s one film per year pace leaves a lot of room for experimentation. A lesser film by Allen can be overlooked because it’s only one of so many dozen. The ability for experimentation is a positive thing. We aren’t likely to haven gotten films like Zelig without it. On the other hand, some films can feel a bit phoned in. Here in Radio Days, Allen has an interest he’s looking to explore, the days of his youth in particular. We’re given a series of what are effectively vignettes with a loose binding. Radio Days explores life in the early 1940s and the way that radio’s presence had an impact. It’s hardly a drama, but it’s hardly a comedy either.
There are two main divisions in the vignettes. We get the narrator’s family and an entirely separate section of Mia Farrow playing an aspiring radio actress. For the narrator’s family, the humor is a mix of a slapstick knocking around of the narrator as a young boy and an observation of their silliness. They are fairly religious Jews (who would have guessed that?), and they discuss fasting and the sabbath. Naturally they spend their time bickering. One wants to find a husband. The narrator’s father is always hatching schemes to get rich, and his mother is always turning them down.
Farrow’s side of things has her playing a young and uncultured actress. She bumbles her way up the business. In just about every case, the vignettes begin with some prompt. There’s a new man, there’s a new object of desire, there’s a new problem. This isn’t exactly an issue - having an immediate problem to address is a pretty standard impetus for a story, but in Radio Days nothing exactly feels like it naturally comes about. The stories are random and never feel fulfilling. We get vague endings (an Allen standard) or perhaps nothing at all.
Allen doesn’t give us much to look at either. He does more than a fine job replicating the feel of an older film. It all looks like the 1940s, and it sure seems like he understands how they live. The colors are orange and brown, they wear plaid shirts and big round glasses. He doesn’t try to make it look glamorous, not even in nostalgia. It’s just an older time, and it was kind of dull.
The biggest problem here is that the humor comes from these characters’ unhappiness. They joke about how they’re unhappy, they joke about wanting to be a part of the excitement on the radio. The implication is that of course they’re happy, they’re just fooling around and day dreaming a bit, but this never actually feels true. Their lives are a little sad. The father is embarrassed to tell his son that he works as a taxi driver. The Aunt can’t find a husband, and she can’t even find anything else to devote her life to. The narrator’s mother and father are ‘happy enough’ - the mother even talks about it. It isn’t an eye toward a sad truth, it’s an inability to point out what’s humorous within these peoples’ sad lives.
This film does not manage to charm in the way that it wants to. Perhaps it isn’t looking to be a stellar comedy, but rather some in between - a tour of the 1940s, a tour of radio’s golden days, and some bickering families all the while. As it is, nothing comes out strong. Radio is a cheap thread used to tie these pieces together, and these pieces aren’t particularly interesting. In the end, we haven’t learned much about the time, and we haven’t even met some people interesting enough to hold our attention.
Woody Allen has been abroad for a few years, and his latest, following up the love letter to Paris that was Midnight in Paris, is another one charmed by a city, aptly titled, To Rome With Love. It’s the first film in a while with Allen in front of the camera as well. It’s something of an ensemble cast across all ages, Alec Baldwin and Penélope Cruz to Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page. If you’ve seen a few Allen films you know what to expect - it’s well rounded enough, but with a once per year output, we’ll take whatever we can get. Fortunately, it’s often quite good.
To Rome With Love has several divided plot lines that would almost be vignettes were they not interspersed. Allen quarrels with his daughter’s in-laws, Baldwin revisits a past relationship, and several Italian actors encounter fleeting flirtations with fame. Some of the plot lines are casually related, others have no semblance of relation but that they occur in the same city. The film does not try for a Magnolia style meeting of plot lines. Rather, they’re simply all small stories, and they never put forth that they mean to be more than that. This all works well, and largely, Allen’s interspersing of them is functional. It stops at functional however. The passage of time between the different plots is utterly different. Days can pass in one when only hours pass in another. This never leads to confusion, but it does prevent the film from building toward something greater or simply creating a broader coherency.
Aside from Allen, these actors aren’t aiming for Allen’s classical rhythm the way that Owen Wilson so successfully did in Midnight in Paris. Even Allen struggles a bit. His jokes land well - he still knows the perfect delivery - but his timing is slower, and it’s hard to tell if this is intentional or simply an issue of age. They all deliver though. Ellen Page isn’t Allen’s standard woman, though she’s playing something clearly along his interests. She’s a pseudo-intellectual and she’s oddly sexy because of it. Fabio Armiliato performs opera in the shower, and it’s consistently hilarious watching him use a loofa while performing so brilliantly.
The emotional content, like any Allen film, is casual and clever but never deeply developed. As usual, the film only ends because it’s time to. Allen knows what he’s doing though. In what can’t be more than a quarter of the film, Allen builds to a conclusion as smart as most films focusing on young, naive, and confused love. Elsewhere, the thematic content is more of interest, though this is of course more worth observing among Allen’s broader and recurring interests. Allen’s character is afraid of retirement and equates it with death - it’s easy to see where these ideas have come from. The film also speaks to notions of fame, it’s absurdity, it’s stresses, and it’s charm.
Some plots are stronger than others, and even then, the strength wavers moment to moment, though it never dips from being smart and entertaining. We’re given a vague tour of Rome and a visit to many characters representative of Allen’s interests. It’s hard to say that this doesn’t make for a strong film. There’s neuroticism, a troubled romance, and an entire meta relationship. Like many Allen films, it may not feel utterly conclusive, but by the time we’ve reached a climactic opera performance, it’s hard not to feel fulfilled.
Allen’s previous effort, Midnight in Paris, was quite a gem, not only among Allen’s films, but film in general. It had a broader coherency between emotional and thematic content, not to mention plot. To Rome With Love may feel like a more casual effort, but it demonstrates the ease with which Allen puts out such smart pieces. Many of these stories drawn out could likely stand well enough on their own - together, though haphazard in some ways, they are concise and clever. It may not be his finest, but it certainly reminds us how good Allen is.
I don’t know if there’s any run quite as impressive and prolific as Woody Allen’s output of one film per year since the 1960’s. While this leads to obvious ups and downs in quality, Allen clearly knows what he’s doing. This holds true particularly with his comedies. Even a lesser one is fine in the overall landscape of cinema. Broadway Danny Rose is relatively simplistic and rarely laugh-out-loud funny - but the formula that is Allen bumbling through social situations is hard to outright dislike, and here Allen’s charm comes through.
To simplify things, the story is told through a frame. Several men are sharing stories of Danny Rose. In a very Allen move, several quick stories are told establishing Rose’s character. The actual story is not complicated. It moves from one beat to the next, simply progressing rather than building greatly upon itself. It feels quite natural, which is certainly at Allen’s touch, as it becomes a more and more wild as Rose angers members of the mafia.
The humor here is largely in Rose’s social interactions. He continually shares anecdotes, prefacing his statements with, “I don’t mean to be didactic or facetious.” The anecdotes are always from his dead relatives. He speaks quickly and rather roundabout, and somehow he’s almost smooth. The anecdote gag is repeated several times, but it never fails to be entertaining. Allen’s delivery is, as usual, fantastic.
The sort of simplistic plot present in Broadway Danny Rose seems to follow from Allen’s accelerated development schedule. It’s hard to fault a film created so quickly, but of course, it’s wrong to judge based on this criteria. Even Allen has created more complicated works. It’s a fairly straightforward comedy, but that’s fine. Allen still builds Danny Rose’s world. We see his roster of clients, his dedication to Lou. He cares about these people and does his best for them.
The end, like many Allen films, isn’t particularly conclusive. The events of the story work themselves out, but mostly, it stops because there’s no more to be seen here. In Broadway Danny Rose, things don’t necessarily work out better for Rose. In fact, he might be worse off - it’s someone else who has grown through the story’s events. Broadway Danny Rose isn’t one of Allen’s finest comedies, but it’s entirely enjoyable. It’s Allen’s standard character, and that’s hard not to like.
Woody Allen’s interests show up in entirely different ways through his drama Another Woman than in his comedies. The usual is here: relationships, creating art, intellectualism (especially as it relates to the subordination of one party). It’s all presented quite differently here. There is no sense of satire, and oddly, no air of judgement either. Perhaps this is partly as it relates to other Allen films, but much of Another Woman feels disingenuous.
Stylistically it recalls many aspects of Bergman films. There are simple and long scenes inside of homes. The characters talk to one another, and slowly through these conversations the viewer comes to understand them and their conflicts. A notable instance of evoking Bergman is in Marion’s new apartment. Through the wall she can hear a psychiatrist and his patient speaking. She acts on it very slowly and over time.
There are a number of other interesting moves Allen makes. Marion, who the film follows, is established quickly via voiceover. It’s a different take on the quick establishments Allen often does. The camera pans through photographs as Marion speaks of their subjects. Voiceover is used throughout the film. Most interestingly, later in the film, Marion reads Rilke via voiceover. Shortly thereafter, the camera cuts to a visual representation of the imagery evoked in the poem. Perhaps the smartest move here is while Marion is looking through photographs. As she speaks of the photograph, the viewer effectively sees her memory. The memories look like the photographs. They are largely still, and the viewer can see what the photograph looked like. But the camera remains on the image, and the people move, and the camera too, as we can imagine Marion might seeing them, filling in the gaps.
Quite often we see Marion at parties or dining among friends. In most Allen films, we would see Allen’s character bumbling through pompous pseudo-intellectuals. Here, Marion and her colleagues have the same discussions that those around Allen might, but instead they’re all viewed seriously. In a sense, these discussions are dull, and unfortunately do not provide the subtle insight that we slowly gather in a Bergman film. Additionally, a combination Another Woman’s relation to Allen’s other works, and the film itself, make these discussions have a feeling of falsity to them.
Marion has a dream sequence during which she confronts many issues in her life. The metaphor used throughout the sequence is that of her life being a stage play, and seeing the dialogue performed in this manner is significantly stronger. Perhaps because here the characters tend to address issues, or perhaps because of the more theatrical performance style used, this is among the film’s more interesting sections. It’s cheapened, however, by being a dream that is used to handle serious issues in Marion’s life.
Unfortunately, we never grow invested in these characters. All of Marion’s speech is performed in the same tone as her voiceover. She feels very detached (and not in a way that reflects her character’s problems). The discomforting feeling within all of these scenes is due to them lacking a certain life. Part way through the film, Marion thinks about how beautiful it was that her mother cried over Rilke. In another Allen film, it would be a throwaway mockery. Here, we’re supposed to accept it as depth of character. It shouldn’t be such a surprise that there’s a disconnect.