Spoiler alert: proceed with caution.
A Woody Allen picture usually feels less like a finished movie and more like an idea for one. This isn't always a bad thing, if the idea has the right kind of hook shape. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), and Sweet and Lowdown (1999), for example, are developed from tricky-but-uncomplicated sketch-comedy premises, which keeps Allen's talent in its most felicitous range while allowing his overqualified actors—Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Tilly, Chazz Palminteri, Tracey Ullman, Jim Broadbent, Sean Penn, Samantha Morton—to bring subtextual nuance or bold comic elaboration to their roles. These movies are more risk-takingly imaginative than even the best of the old-Hollywood contenders in the broad category of backward-gazing entertainment, e.g., Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Funny Girl (1968), and less cloying than even the Debbie-Reynolds-infested Singin' in the Rain (1952). (The only movie in the category that they fall short of is Pennies From Heaven (1981), Herbert Ross's Americanized adaptation of Dennis Potter's 1978 BBC miniseries.) In these movies Allen's creatures skitter across impeccably reupholstered fantasies of the past, and his work falls in the great American comic-movie tradition of writers and directors who keep the characters within vividly legible outlines so that the players' talents appear even more concentrated.
In his more ambitious phase post-Annie Hall, many people have come to prefer Allen's movies when he doesn't appear in them. The underlying intuition is that he needs to get over himself, though not in the way he thinks, by confronting the bleaker aspects of life and tippy-toeing to reach a supposedly higher plane of discourse. In Zelig (1983), for example, Allen starts from a great comic premise, a title character who takes on the characteristics of whomever he's around—mostly the physical characteristics (brown skin, Native American features, obese girth), but also mental characteristics. Next to a Frenchman he speaks French; talking to Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), the hospital psychiatrist intent on getting to the root of his strange disability, Zelig speaks as if he were the doctor.
Zelig becomes a pop celebrity in the 1920s and '30s and Allen's cinematographer, designers, and special effects crew miraculously insert him into archival newsreels and fake the rest of the movie to look like old footage, while the audio snippets of Zelig talking to Dr. Fletcher crackle with the flaws of the recordings of the era. It's a feat of trompe-l'oeil, and of trompe-l'oreille, too. Allen's technique in Zelig is like Guy Maddin's replication of bygone styles of moviemaking, including their technical limitations, without, however, Maddin's genius for infusing those styles and technologies with his openly excessive love for them. Maddin's infatuation with the pop of the past festers into madcap, morbid, obsessional-confessional camp (see my review of The Saddest Music in the World (2003), although Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) may be even farther gone); Allen's work in Zelig is "faithful," more tastefully, and conventionally, fond. The most radical aspect of Zelig is that it's entirely narrated rather than dramatized, and presented as a documentary.
While clever, the pseudo-documentary structure keeps Allen from coming up with anything more than the idea of the character. And though Zelig is sub-episodic Allen can't wait 20 minutes before telling us what it all means. Thus, under hypnosis Zelig tells Dr. Fletcher that he assumes other people's characteristics in order to be safe, to be liked. The unfortunate irony here is that Allen is one of the most recognizable, and least protean, performers in the world; it's hard to imagine him pulling off impersonations if he tried. He can't act out Zelig's story more fully because he's miscast and as the author of the piece he would hardly write material for himself he can't play. The fact that Zelig doesn't become a woman while talking to Dr. Fletcher indicates the extent to which Allen has restricted the character to his own comfort zone as a performer. The movie would be more engaging with a chameleon-like star, and perhaps if Allen had cast someone else as Zelig that actor could have got the idea across without the blandly explicit dialogue and brought more dimensions to the role, besides. Playing the part himself Allen only compounds the one-note pathos of the conception. As director, writer, and star, Allen deflates the comic premise with his scrawny-Jew's self-pity and then tries to fill it back up with banalities about American conformism.
In Zelig Allen kills a potentially great joke by riding a downcast attitude for more than it's worth; Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) is probably the best example of how inadequate his "serious" ideas are in the first place. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a successful, married ophthalmologist, wants to end a stale two-year affair with a stewardess. The tacky, clinging, thick-spirited Dolores (Anjelica Huston) feels Judah has elevated her (e.g., he's fed her his opinions on Schumann and Schubert) and demands that he live up to the promises she feels he made (which he denies). Dolores wants the two of them to sit down with his wife to discuss what should be done, and threatens to expose some financial sleight-of-hand he engaged in by which nobody was cheated but which technically violated his fiduciary duties. His brother Jack (Jerry Orbach in a note-perfect performance) inhabits a rougher world and advises Judah to let him have Dolores taken care of, to which Judah reluctantly assents. Judah and Jack's father was a pious Orthodox Jew who told them that the eyes of God were always on them and that the righteous would be rewarded and the guilty punished. The boys, however, take after their atheistic aunt who used to challenge and ridicule their father's faith, even during Seder. Tormented by guilt after the murder, Judah comes close to exposing his crime by his erratic behavior. Later we're told that he managed over time to adjust to what he'd had his brother do and so gets away with murder, inside and out.
In the "misdemeanor" half of the story, Allen plays Cliff, a documentary filmmaker who's too high-minded to be successful. His pet project is a tribute to Louis Levy, a psychology professor who sees affirmation in all experience; Cliff has endless unedited footage of Levy expounding. Cliff gets a paying job from his brother-in-law Lester (Alan Alda), a wealthy sitcom producer whom Cliff looks down on as a crap merchant and blowhard. During the shoot Cliff is taken with Halley (Mia Farrow), a beautiful producer on the project, and believes he's bonding with her by ridiculing Lester behind his back. Halley also thinks she can get Cliff's footage on Professor Levy broadcast. When Halley hears about Levy's unforeseeable suicide, she arrives to comfort Cliff, who makes a pass at her. Rejected, Cliff turns in an openly offensive cut of the documentary about Lester, who fires him and wins Halley besides, which comes as a shock to no one but Cliff.
Cliff learns that Halley is with Lester at the same party at which Judah, a stranger to Cliff, later wanders in where Cliff is sitting and anonymously proposes his own crime as a potential movie plot. Cliff disagrees with Judah's premise, that a man could commit that crime and not be damaged by it internally, but Judah, secretly speaking for himself, insists it's possible. Judah then joins his wife, with whom he displays a renewed connection. Cliff represents the naïvely romantic moralist inside Allen, but with Crimes and Misdemeanors Allen is siding with Judah against Cliff. The movie is an attempt to illustrate the proposition that good things happen to bad people on a regular basis, and God is not keeping tabs. (The movie could just as easily be said to prove that for atheists there is no bar to murder, but I don't think this can be intentional.)
Allen intends the movie as a chilling retort to Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, in which the commission of a pointless murder by a student who believes himself to be above common morality causes psychological disintegration such that he can't help but incriminate himself to the police. But Dostoevsky's work gives us extraordinary access to the protagonist's mental processes. Crimes and Misdemeanors does not because Allen has not found an equivalent in the medium of film to the internal access to character or the encompassing narration possible in prose fiction.
Instead, he writes his proposition up essentially like a stage play; all we know of what's going on inside people is what they say about it to other characters, and what they say doesn't advance the concept much (and is woefully lacking in poetry). A large part of the problem is that Allen writes dialogue in three modes: one is a stammering comic patter that makes characters sound just like him and the second is a stilted form of self-analysis that makes them sound like nobody you've ever known. (Speaking about themselves they sound like they're reading off the author's notecards.) The third is naturalistic background chatter, which is all Judah's wife Miriam gets (a waste of the great Claire Bloom). This turns Miriam into an extra, although Judah's motivation in killing Dolores is entirely bound up with Miriam's character, i.e., he says she'd never get over his infidelity, which we learn solely from Judah talking to other people. This is an especially odd failing considering how much time is given to scenes of the increasingly overwrought Dolores. You may wonder if Allen thinks it's necessary for us to feel that we, too, would kill Dolores in Judah's position, which would, of course, be gaga.
This total externality is fatal to the concept. The movie opens with Judah receiving an award for philanthropy which tells us that he is a good man—Allen is taking an extreme case, and saying even a good man could kill and suffer no qualms and endure no punishment. It probably doesn't need to be said, however, that a man who kills his inconvenient ex-girlfriend is by definition not good. That would make him a sociopath, even if a theretofore-undetectable sociopath, and Allen's demonstration of his adolescent moral pessimism simply doesn't have the imaginative reach to convey psychological chaos of that kind convincingly. And as for the externals, Allen doesn't dramatize the story enough to give weight to Judah's fear of Miriam's reaction to his adultery. If we saw how his marriage, along with his fear of complications and exposure, pushed a cowardly, self-indulgent man in the direction of murder, then Landau might have been able to give us a clammily intimate portrait of a fractured personality. As is, he's just not believable as a murderer—he doesn't have a dark side to go over to. (If only he had Orbach's secret-keeping eyes.)
Allen fails because his writing lacks the complexity to show us how it would actually work to commit murder and not feel guilty about it—what would have to be brought forward in the personality and what would have to be suppressed. Judah pleads anxiously for Dolores to be reasonable before the crime and is nearly hysterical afterwards, so when he shows up in the last scene and says (indirectly) that he doesn't feel bad about murdering her, it's as if an entirely new character had shown up—the key development in his character has been elided. As a result, in the "crimes" section of the movie, Allen starts with a sketchy premise and after working it through for 107 minutes he still has no more than the premise he started with.
The Lester half of the movie is a trickier kind of botch. Allen acknowledges that what Lester gets away with is not a crime, but though he presents his own character Cliff as petty, envious, and self-deluded, he still expects us to see Lester as Cliff sees him, i.e., as walking proof of the unfairness of life—phonies get the money, the attention, the praise, the girls. Some of what Allen tots up as Lester's misdemeanors, (e.g., coming on to sexy women in corners when he thinks nobody's looking), however, suggest that Allen is not as self-aware as he thinks. After all, Allen's demonstration of the unfairness of Lester's success is crowned by his winning Halley, who is played by Allen's own luminous goyish girlfriend at the time. What on earth is he whining about? Producing cheesy sit-coms, being pompous, and scoring with bimbos may perhaps reveal a propensity to vice but aren't in themselves as much as misdemeanors.
In the shot at the climactic party in which Cliff first sees Halley "with" Lester, Cliff looks numb beyond pain; it's as if Allen had created Lester as a caricature of Allen's own jealousy of conventionally handsome and successful artists and then forgot it was an exaggeration. (Alda certainly plays Lester as a maddening joke—How can he not be on to himself?—and is one of the few comedians who has been able to develop his own comic persona and maintain his own vocal rhythms in a Woody Allen movie.) Allen's self-pity runs so deep he thinks it is deep; with the "misdemeanors" section of the movie Allen has written a comic sketch and then handed it in for credit in philosophy class.
Allen's latest movie, Match Point has obvious similarities to Crimes and Misdemeanors, taking off not from Dostoevsky, however, but from Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. Allen adjusts the story so that the class-climbing young protagonist who murders his pregnant girlfriend in order to protect his marriage into a wealthy business family gets away with it. Here the "idea" is that it's more important to be lucky than good (a notion spoken offhandedly by the blind rabbi played by Sam Waterston in Crimes and Misdemeanors), but the plot point that demonstrates this—a wedding ring that bounces back off a railing rather than going over it—is excruciatingly inadequate for the philosophical weight Allen thinks it's bearing. This moment, in which worldly ruin and salvation lie in the balance, is no more momentous than an ironic development in a film noir, the accidental strangulation with a telephone cord in Detour (1945), for instance.
Allen is a comic-idea man, the most spirited period fantasist in American movies, but not a thinker or a great narrative artist. What he can't do at all is what a novelist does—map out in believable, minute detail the intersection of characters' inner and outer worlds. (From the synopses of novels attributed to the writer-protagonist of Deconstructing Harry (1997), Allen doesn't even know what a novelist does.) Match Point focuses on the outer world more than Crimes and Misdemeanors and its failure is that much more disappointing.
In Match Point the Irish working-class protagonist Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) comes to London to capitalize on his limited success as a tennis player by getting a job as a pro at an exclusive club. He becomes friendly with one of his pupils and ends up dating the guy's sister. The siblings' father is a tycoon who finds a place in his corporation for Chris and helps him up the ladder. The first problem is that as Rhys-Meyers plays him Chris doesn't seem working-class, or even Irish although he is, and doesn't evince the ambition or hunger or expedience it would take to become attached to a rich girl just to get ahead. Rhys-Meyers's narcissism is never terribly expressive, but it's particularly inopportune when playing a character who would have to be especially watchful of the family he's conning. He doesn't seem as tactical as a tennis player and there's nothing like the compulsively absorbing process of Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley taking on another man's life. (Rhys-Meyers doesn't seem that different from his dupes to begin with.)
In addition, having translated the story to London (the script was originally set in the Hamptons), Allen doesn't manage to make the external details even superficially convincing. For instance, we don't have any idea what the family business consists of or how Chris, with no relevant education or experience, could learn it so fast. (It doesn't help that the passage of time is uncertain and Rhys-Meyers doesn't mature or even change.) For his first promotion Chris is told he'll have an expense account and a driver; later his father-in-law tells him that he's giving him an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of one of the corporation's ventures in Japan and make a bundle. Allen talks about business the way a child might; if he doesn't understand how corporate officers are compensated then why highlight it? Later Allen attempts to create suspense with a murder investigation conducted by the least determined detectives outside of low comedy in movie history. (The actors in Law and Order could do a better job, let alone real detectives.)
Allen has referred to the move from the Hamptons to London as "cosmetic," which gives you an idea of how committed he is to the necessary brick-on-brick work of realism. While the situation he proposes in Match Point seems possible, that isn't enough in itself; it has to be thoroughly worked out and the enactment has to feel more than plausible. Calling the story "universal" wouldn't help because realism can't just skip over the particulars to arrive at the universal any more than a rocket can just skip over the intervening space to arrive at the moon. Allen develops characters and situations here as if he had jotted the major points down on the back of an envelope and then used the envelope as his shooting script. The movie is so thin-textured it's ludicrous.
No element of Match Point can withstand comparison to the evocative precision of Julian Fellowes's Separate Lies (see my review), which also takes place among wealthy Londoners—a romantic triangle finding their footing on morally shaky ground in the wake of a man's accidental death. By contrast, the characters and setting in Match Point are so underdeveloped it's even less interesting to sit through than Melinda and Melinda (2004), which at least takes place in a setting Allen is familiar enough with to describe credibly. The problem with Melinda and Melinda is not that the idea is bad, but that the movie doesn't demonstrate it. Over a meal a comic playwright and a tragic playwright take a single incident—a young woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) arriving unexpectedly during a dinner party—and from it one of them spins a comic plot and the other a tragic plot, both of which are acted out. The two stories are intercut with each other, and with additional scenes of the playwrights explicating their stories and debating the differences between comedy and tragedy.
Allen presents the side-by-side stories as if to compare the comic and tragic views of experience, and it might work but for the fact that the two men come up with dissimilar plots featuring different characters played mostly by different actors. Did anyone ever deny that some people write comedies while other people write completely different stories that are tragedies? In structure Romeo and Juliet comes awfully close to romantic comedy and Othello to bedroom farce, but to demonstrate this you wouldn't need to make the plots and characters as different from Shakespeare's as the two stories in Melinda and Melinda are from each other.
And yet Allen places so much emphasis on the idea that he neglects the more fundamental task of making the comic and tragic stories interesting in themselves. I can't imagine separating the two out from each other and watching them in sequence independently. One is a broad romantic comedy, but though Allen hired that warped crack-moose Will Ferrell as his lead, he reins him in, having him imitate Allen's signature delivery and act "nice." And the other story isn't tragic at all, it's merely sordid, and overrelies on Radha Mitchell, who is in way over her head as the disturbed protagonist. (The "tragic" dialogue is also some of Allen's awkwardest.)
The actors can't save Match Point, either, because Allen lacks a feel for the younger generation of performers he's now working with. The only character of any interest besides Rhys-Meyers's blank Chris is Nola (Scarlett Johansson), his brother-in-law's fiancée (until mother comes between) with whom Chris has his "torrid," "ill-fated" affair. (All the other characters, including, once again, the killer's wife, are in background-chatter mode, with the occasional exception of Penelope Wilton as the determined mother-in-law.) Johansson is very alluring early on, yet interestingly self-protecting. (Rhys-Meyers's eyes come to life only when he's chasing her.) Experience seems to have taught Nola to be both yielding and unyielding and yet she can't quite close the deals this enables her to promote. Nola is young but you can already see how the prospect of failure is souring her. Regrettably, Johansson's performance evaporates in the later sections. Unlike Anjelica Huston who brought her considerable, even threatening, physicality—the broad shoulders and weight-lifter's neck—to the role of Dolores, Johansson is a softie, and has to push too hard to transform Nola into a demanding hysteric with none of the resources we glimpsed in her before. You might want her dead just to end the repetitive gear-grinding of her later scenes. They have no traction because there's no character development leading to Nola's unassuageable fury: Why does she want a man who doesn't want her? What does she think she'll get by forcing the issue into the open that she couldn't get by playing it smart on the side? Is she trying to strike back at his in-laws? (Nola's situation has less grip and generates less pathos than Judy Henske's enthralling rendition of "Little Romy", a ballad about a man who murders his pregnant girlfriend, which lasts all of two minutes in Hootenanny Hoot! (1963).)
Nothing is more pathetic, however, than Nola and Chris's "hot" sex. During one midday quickie she blindfolds him with his necktie, which is embarrassing not because you're being exposed to Allen's sexual fantasies but because you aren't—he's faking heedless arousal. (The only genuine heedlessness in evidence is the fact that this is Allen's second film about getting away with murdering an obstreperous ex-girlfriend, but this one, unlike Crimes and Misdemeanors, was made after his scandalous, litigious breakup with Mia Farrow.) In Match Point Allen is faking everything—the premise, the characters and their world, every detail, internal and external. (The fakery includes the characters' love of opera; the soundtrack is full of Enrico Caruso arias, including crazy-driving repetition of "Una furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore, which you'd never guess is the most Shakespearean of comic operas not adapted from Shakespeare.)
And perhaps because Allen doesn't appear in it, and there isn't a character based on his persona, the dialogue is oddly unpunctuated (apart from a daring first exchange between Chris and Nola, a fair homage perhaps to Bogart and Bacall). The storytelling and the film editing, which are at least intriguingly elliptical in Crimes and Misdemeanors, are likewise monotonously straightforward here. Allen gets into the story of Match Point only to get out of it what he'd already sought to demonstrate in Crimes and Misdemeanors, that there are conscienceless people among us getting away with their crimes and not even God is watching. (How Allen knows God isn't watching, as opposed to interceding, is apparently not a question that has occurred to him. The literal-mindedness of his metaphysical speculation—God doesn't exist because Hitler did—reflects no imagination for transcendence.) In Crimes and Misdemeanors Allen at least tries to entertain us while demonstrating his slim thesis by juggling his storylines. In Match Point he stands at the blackboard for 124 minutes and plods through the equation—which we know already from his previous efforts.
To his credit, Allen does not boast about his attainments to interviewers. In this recent L.A. Weekly interview, for instance, he goes on,
I'm a middle-class person playing the part of a neurotic intellectual. People mistake that for who I am, but actually, I'm the guy who sits next to you at the ballgame or the movie house. I'm the guy who will be home tonight with a beer watching the Knicks on television. I'm not going to have my nose in my Kierkegaard.Allen admits to having read Kierkegaard, and Freud and Marshall McLuhan,
[b]ut only because I had to to survive. I didn't read them because it's an instinct in me or because I liked it. I read those things because the girls I was dating wouldn't go out with me if I hadn't. It's not something that comes natural to me or which I find very enjoyable.
(There's more Lester in Allen than you might guess from Crimes and Misdemeanors.) If he's not an intellectual, then why does he keep making "idea" movies? (And why oh why did he use the term "deconstructing" when he plainly didn't know what it means?) Why doesn't he make movies about the guys at the ballgame or the movie house or at home with a beer watching the Knicks on television? Now 70, he's lived long enough to know that the opening narration in Match Point—"The man who said, 'I'd rather be lucky than good,' saw deeply into life"—is enough to make any reasonably educated person cringe. Match Point has, nonetheless, prostrated the critics, which suggests that in the movies it's possible to soar way beyond the level of your incompetence.
You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.