“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.” Woody Allen’s oft-professed indifference to posterity and to critical pronouncements on his movies is a blessing to ardent fans of his uniquely rich and varied oeuvre. Had he more than a cursory awareness of the fortunes of each successive release, which to an Allen admirer can seem as random and unjust as the capricious fate his films sometimes depict, he might have wound down his prodigious output or even folded up his director’s chair some time ago. Some time around the late Nineties to be precise, when, runs a common narrative, his stunning run of assured multi-genre masterpieces (roughly speaking, from 1977’s Annie Hall to Bullets Over Broadway in 1994) gave way to a disenchanting, patchy run of unfocused movies, lame farces and diminished retreads of past glories. In the last decade or so, the story goes, this twilight period has been lightened by the occasional instance of, in that most lazy and complacent critical term, a “return to form”; 2005’s Match Point, 2011’s Midnight in Paris, and Blue Jasmine from 2013. It would indeed have been a miraculous feat for Allen to have continued to sustain the extraordinary purple patch which gave us such sublime and eclectic masterpieces as Zelig (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and (perhaps ultimately his key work for the uninitiated) Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). But the received notion of a late period of drearily diminishing returns with just the occasional flash of brilliance is, I believe, unfair and unreflective of the merits of the films he continues to produce at an annual rate.
Granted my ongoing enthusiasm may partly be because I come to Allen’s movies less as an enthusiast for the form and mechanics of cinema per se than as an admirer of Allen’s general worldview, of his ceaseless probing of moral and philosophical questions, his disabused depictions of romantic relationships and entanglements, his proficiency with different periods and genres and, where applicable, his peerless way with a gag. Much of the critical griping which comes despite, or perhaps because of, these well-established gifts can seem specious or rather churlish. To my mind those inured and inattentive critics often fail, as it were, to see the Woody for the trees (yes, that’s why I’m not Woody Allen, folks). I can gladly indulge him the uncharacteristically rambling length of 1998’s Celebrity (sometimes identified as where Woody’s wobbles began) because of its unstarry, nuanced and rather prescient appraisal of the lustre of fame and the cult of celebrity well before they reached their current fever pitch and its reassertion of Allen’s belief in the overarching role of circumstance in worldy success – always a strikingly sober and magnanimous sentiment given his own stellar achievements. I may also accept Woody’s own judgement that he miscast himself as a streetwise, womanising Bogart-like investigator in 2001’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (almost gleefully panned as his most expensive production), but this is more than redeemed by an entertaining premise, the sumptuous 1940s set designs, an authentic seedily glamorous Noir ambience, and the crackling repartee between Allen and co-star Helen Hunt. And 2002’s bafflingly disregarded Hollywood Ending may again be slightly overlong and a little uneven, but its significance and fascination lies in its being Allen’s first full exposition of the processes of film pitching, production and promotion, informed by a veteran’s experiences of the business and satirically, sometimes farcically rendered.
In fact even in Allen’s perceived heyday, his popular and critical hits were punctuated by occasional heavier works such as 1978’s Interiors and 1987’s Another Woman; these straight dramas from which he was absent as star displayed a European sensibility redolent of Ibsen and Bergman and were in general stuffily dismissed, at least initially, as pretentious, overreaching failures (though not, it may be noted, in Europe itself). Our cultural arbiters seemingly couldn’t accept Woody Allen the purveyor of goofy slapstick and leftfield romantic comedies attempting such a serious turn. It now seems that Allen was ahead of the commentators; the lauded Blue Jasmine is in some ways a less austere, less stylised descendant of Another Woman, with a similarly marooned and deluded central character, and to my mind Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning performance is doing something similar to fellow Australian Judy Davis’ neurotic turns in earlier Allen outings. Indeed his actors similarly seem to have a march on the critical consensus; despite the decline in his standing Allen has continually been able to attract stars of the stature of Anthony Hopkins, Leonardo diCaprio, Penelope Cruz, Colin Farrell and Will Ferrell, often engaging their services for nominal fees, and the impressive roll call cannot simply be explained by the residual kudos of working with a once-venerated director. I recall reading a rather facetious newspaper feature on the 2007 release of Cassandra’s Dream, a bleakly powerful modern Greek tragedy, which painted its star Ewan McGregor as the credulous sycophant to a burned-out auteur as he doggedly defended the movie’s merits. In the event, Cassandra’s Dream, a film not so much panned as rendered invisible upon release, has recently been receiving something of what in our cultural parlance we forgivingly call a “critical reappraisal”. In other words, some of them called it wrong.
Which brings me to Allen’s latest two annual offerings, both predictably overlooked after the success of Blue Jasmine and destined to be designated “minor works” even by sympathetic Allen watchers. Which is a shame, as they both continue effectively to voice the big Woody questions; the merits of blind belief versus cynicism, the efficacy of science and philosophy, the comforts of intellectualism against action, and the ultimate necessity for a personal moral probity in an indifferent, Godless universe. (It is Allen’s continual insistence on this point, through Crimes and Misdemeanors to Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, which makes it hard for me personally to countenance the accusations of abuse which have dogged him.) And these issues are aired through fresh, engaging settings and premises even after fifty-odd films (take my word – I’ve seen them all, at least twice). 2014’s Magic in the Moonlight is a Twenties period piece scenically situated in the French Rivera which sees Colin Firth adopting a Darcy-ish aloof pomposity for comic effect as an internationally famed stage illusionist who doubles, Derren Brown-style, as a debunker of self-styled spiritual mediums. In this case his quarry is an angel-faced young American, played coquettishly by Allen’s latest muse Emma Stone, who has been staying with rich mutual friends, winning their hearts and a stake in their fortunes. In time his investigations leave him genuinely stumped and the cynical showman becomes invigorated and newly enchanted with life on the evidence that she may indeed be the real deal. It seems too to the viewer that this might be an instance of the magical realism which occasionally crops up in the Allen canon (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Alice), but the spiteful scheming of a lesser conjurer is revealed as the true explanation and so the secular, nihilistic Allen prevails – almost. For our hero is forced to accept there are some indeed unfathomable forces at play on us when he finally acknowledges and declares his love for the unmasked fraud. Critical carping here tended to focus on the alleged anachronistic youth-isms of Stone’s delivery, which certainly passed me by, or Allen’s apparent gall in seeking to dress up serious themes in an ostensible comedy. The rest of us can savour it as a charming yet intelligent piece, beautifully shot and played, whose metaphysical arguments are leavened by some rapier wit and Allen’s obvious nostalgic pleasure in revisiting the world of magic which absorbed him as a child.
Last year’s Irrational Man, its title lifted from William Barrett’s classic study of existentialist philosophy, shows up the pretensions of that once-influential creed and the wider pitfalls of grafting abstract nostrums onto everyday circumstance. It is a moral examination in the vein of Crimes and Misdemeanors or Cassandra’s Dream but more amusingly rendered. Joaquin Phoenix is convincingly dissolute as a disenchanted, alcoholic, impotent but charismatic philosophy professor while Emma Stone returns as his enchanted (and rather enchanting) student. Like Firth’s character in Magic in the Moonlight, he finds himself unexpectedly rejuvenated, this time through a decisive, affirming existentialist act, the murder of a crooked judge who is about to rule against a put-upon mother in her custody battle. This shot of homicidal Viagra is initially justified as a humanitarian act, but once his perfect murder starts to unravel and he is pressured to confess, the instinct for self-preservation prevails. More murderous intent follows and the existentialist ideals underpinning his actions are revealed as solipsistic and self-serving. This time, unlike the transgressions in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, his act finds its punishment by way of one of those tiny quirks of fate on which Allen is so keen. Again it’s a well-paced, well-executed movie, with the novelty of being his first to be placed solely in the academic milieu, its campus setting painting a picture of professional rivalries, innuendo and infidelities not much removed from the show business world. Yet some chose to deride the age gap between the two leads, which happens to be necessary to the whole premise and is in any case less glaring than that between Allen and Muriel Hemingway in Manhattan, which nonetheless received critical garlands and numerous gongs. Meanwhile other critics drew attention to – who cares? I’ll never be dissuaded from seeing one of Allen’s films on spec, because it’s always going to be worth watching. His latest two both zip along, entertain, and cumulatively make the argument that some amount of make-believe, even self-deception, may be necessary to sustain us amid the random meaningless of life, but when overdone such coping mechanisms leave us at risk of being hoodwinked or exploited or, at the other extreme, capable of our own immoral acts.
Woody Allen maintains that he has always made his films for an audience of himself and a few close friends, and in the last two decades it must sometimes have felt like it, particularly in the bizarrely unappreciative United States. He seems the kind of genius who, like Prince or McCartney in music, has been penalised rather than rewarded for remaining prolific and has his new works considered (if at all) in comparison to his own mercurial high points rather than the offerings of lesser contemporary talents. There are at least some signs of a change in attitudes to some of his late period works, signs which bring to mind a gag from the early slapstick sci-fi classic Sleeper where the Allen character awakes two hundred years later to find scientists looking back bemusedly on our contemporary belief that smoking is a health hazard; “precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true”. I hope for the sake of those who might be dissuaded from taking in Woody Allen’s always rewarding latter-day films that such shifts in judgement prevail. In the meantime we devotees will continue to find pleasure and enjoyment in each new offering, until the sad day when his mortality or otherwise finally becomes the issue.