How did this happen?
I’ve been on a Woody Allen kick lately. Whenever I tell people this, their inevitable response is a variation of, “How great was Annie Hall?”
When I tell them that I haven’t seen it, the first reaction is shock; the next is kind of an envious endorsement of the Oscar-winning classic: how wonderful it will be, they say, for me to watch it at an age when I’ll be fully able to appreciate it (as opposed to, I guess, being exposed to the movie young and having to grow into it—or something).
Having just seen the film, I can safely say that it’s my least favorite Woody Allen movie. But that’s just a matter of really liking it versus being in love with it. I can only assume that, for the time, it must have been a groundbreaking film in terms of narrative structure, breaking the fourth wall, and introducing the world to Allen’s brand of bitterly funny emotional truth. But I made the mistake of watching Manhattan first, a film he made two years later in which he improved a lot of the elements he’d sketched out here.
About three-quarters of Annie Hall is fantastic. Allen opens the film, playing stand-up comic Alvy Singer. He explains to the audience that Groucho Marx’s famous line about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member is the best way to describe his relationships. As he jumps back and forth in his life story, we see glimpses of a girl he laments breaking up with, Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman pepper flashbacks of Alvy’s tortured grade-school days with touching snippets of Alvy and Annie wrangling rogue lobsters in a kitchen, or meeting for the first time during a game of doubles tennis.
Annie is a ditzy free spirit who dreams of being a singer; Alvy is a neurotic, two-time divorcé who rebels against an intellectual class he can’t seem to cop to being part of. Together, they support each other and live a cozy, un-challenging life of people-watching and going to movies. Over time, Annie decides she wants more, and begins seeing a famous musician named Tony Lacey (Paul Simon). Alvy tries half-heartedly to convince her to come back to him, but it’s clear that Annie has moved on to a life of socializing and being active outside of her own head.
I loved the non-linear portions of the film. By seeing the Alvy/Annie story unfold out of order and interspersed with scenes from Alvy’s first marriage and a couple of failed relationships in between, we avoid the movie’s central problem until about the last half-hour: the movie is about a couple casually coming together, casually doing nothing, and then casually drifting apart. These scenes are fairly realistic, wonderfully acted, and intermittently funny. But in the end, when Alvy shrugs and re-iterates his Groucho philosophy, I was unsatisfied.
Alvy clearly thought he loved Annie, and Annie clearly owed a lot to Alvy’s brazenness and kooky, brilliant mind. But she grew up and moved on, and Alvy didn’t, and it’s unclear if she meant as much to him as he did to her. The story concludes with a “Guess I’ll Try Again Next Time” vibe, and I got the feeling the movie could have just as well been about any of the exes in the picture. Alvy is the same guy at the beginning of the film as he is at the end, and all he has to show for his troubles is a play that he wrote about his most recent failed relationship. I’m not saying Alvy has to be sympathetic, but we should at least have a reason to care about the story he’s just spent nearly two hours recounting.
It’s frustrating, because there’s so much great stuff everywhere except in the main attraction; as opposed to Manhattan, which placed the same actors in a not dissimilar relationship and added layers of complication and betrayal to create a far more compelling story. In that film, Allen’s character falls for an interesting, crazy intellectual and dumps his loving, college-bound girlfriend—only to realize at the end that he’d been chasing a fantasy all along. If you could combine Annie Hall’s rich, storytelling trickery with Manhattan’s gorgeous cinematography and character development, you’d have the most powerful, honest romantic comedy of all time.
If you’ve never seen either Annie Hall or Manhattan, I recommend watching them back-to-back, in chronological order. I screwed myself by doing the reverse, and found disappointment at the end of an otherwise outstanding film.
Okay, as long as I’m confessing things here, I should mention that I didn’t love everything about the first part of Annie Hall. The childhood flashbacks were annoying as hell. With the exception of highly trained professionals, children should never be allowed to deliver adult dialogue. In one of the scenes, several kids stand up and tell the audience what their future selves do for a living, and it’s clear that none of them understands the words coming out of their mouths. The clipped, mumbled delivery kills the comedic effect. Similarly, the idea of Alvy’s dinner-table reminiscences of his overtly Jewish upbringing was executed far more effectively in Crimes and Misdemeanors.
I’m very conflicted. On one hand, I can appreciate how much Annie Hall must have meant to a lot of people in 1977, and in the early years of Allen’s journey into more serious subject matter. On the other, I can’t help but think of this as a flawed version of his stronger films. Sadly, I lack Alvy Singer’s perspective-altering ability to hop around my own life story.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 07/09/11.]