Woody Allen became my favourite filmmaker in 1982 when I saw Take The Money And Run on TV, followed, thanks to a short BBC season, by Bananas, Sleeper and, if memory serves, Love and Death, after which I devoured every one of his films that was available to rent or buy. Each time I saw a new one, it would become my favourite: Manhattan, Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, Stardust Memories. Come the mid-90s, I had caught up, having paid good money for what had built into my Woody Allen video library. (In 1988 I wrote a play called Play It Again, Woody, in which a Londoner obsessed by Woody Allen tries to work out his becalmed love life with the help of an apparition of Woody Allen. It was performed twice in front of a paying audience. I played Woody Allen.)
I bought books on him. And I mean, every book I could find. I considered Husbands and Wives and Manhattan Murder Mystery, and even Bullets Over Broadway – in which my hero did not appear, his surrogate being John Cusack – if not quite as good as his 1970s classics, certainly worthy and more mature additions to the canon. Everyone Says I Love You was not brilliant, but it had Woody in it, and it was, at least, a brave experiment with the musical form, and Sweet And Lowdown, a confident period piece, seemed to suggest he still had something unique to offer. As the 20th century drew to a close, I was still glad that Woody Allen made a film a year. I know.
In 2001, when I finally got to meet and interview Woody for Radio 4, he remained my hero and it was a 40-minute experience, in a room at the Dorchester, I will never forget, pretty much the high point of my time interviewing filmmakers and actors for Back Row. The film upon which this interview hung was The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, which wasn’t his best work and I knew it. But this was immaterial, as it didn’t get released in the UK, so we ran the interview anyway, as a free-standing treat. After this, I’m afraid things went downhill very rapidly.
Woody Allen lost his mojo, and I mean completely lost it, around 1999, and I fear we may never see it again. In one sense, this doesn’t matter, as he has left us with a legacy of at least a dozen works of towering, unforgettable, peerless genius, plus around eight or nine further great, entertaining films. (Incidentally, I don’t prefer his earlier, funny films, I prefer his mid-period existential ones.) But in another sense, his decline does matter, as each dud he produces damages the string of glories he once produced. On a much smaller scale, Ben Elton did this.
Woody remains an American auteur, a prolific and vanity-free forger of cinema, and an enthusiastic Europhile; he has carved his own unique niche in Hollywood.
But he should stop now.
Or at least take a long break until he’s got a script that’s really worth making into a film. Because his latest, released this week (unlike his 2006 work Scoop, which wasn’t released in the UK at all), You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is even worse than Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, and I didn’t think that possible. It’s his fourth set in London, and if anyone, or anything, killed Woody Allen, I fear it is the city I have lived in for 27 years. It may be an urban, multicultural, English-speaking cultural hub, just like Woody’s own New York City, but he doesn’t understand it. And he certainly doesn’t understand Londoners. Or hear how they speak. (Gemma Jones, in his new film, keeps asking for something to “sip on.” She means a drink. Who uses the phrase “sip on”?)
All you really need to know about Tall Dark Stranger, other than don’t go and see it, is that it’s one of those compendiums in which a series of domestic stories is told concurrently, gently linked, and loosely gathered around a theme, or motif. In this, it’s faith, sort of. Or that’s what Woody says. (Mind you, in the current Sight and Sound, he claims that Match Point is as good as Annie Hall, which, may God strike me down, actually suggests dementia.) What you also need to know about Tall Dark Stranger is that it is so bad I found myself clutching my own head by the final act. The man in front of me at the screening sank down into his seat in agony, his head lolling to one side. The woman next to me laughed, once, but at the film and not with it. Although Woody does not appear in it, he has no surrogate, in that the token expat American, Josh Brolin’s failed novelist (about time Woody had one of those, eh?), is a boorish, unattractive, unfunny idiot, there, it seems, simply to offer medically-trained opposition to the thread involving Gemma Jones’ visits to Pauline Collins’ psychic.
If the spirit of Woody is here, it’s in Anthony Hopkins’ elderly Lothario, who, after a late-mid-life-crisis divorce from Jones, moves into a bachelor pad and marries Lucy Punch’s seemingly stupid, certainly one-note prostitute/actress. (Unlike Mira Sorvino’s prostitute/actress in Mighty Aphrodite, she doesn’t win anyone round with her force of personality, merely by her push-up bra and short skirt and youthful age.) I’m not going to go into any more plot; the film doesn’t deserve it, hinged as it is on unlikely male fantasies such as a beautiful woman stripping down to her underwear in a flat, even though it looks out onto other flats, including the one belonging to a man she has already spoken to through the window. (Later, the scene is mirrored when another woman strips down to her underwear in another flat opposite. Thank heavens attractive women are this dim, eh lads?)
This film is painful not just because of the flimsy story – hey, I never used to mind the fact that Woody’s films tend to be about couples having affairs, but it’s amazing how quickly that palls when the going is this rough – it’s painful because it’s a waste of such great screen actors, who collectively fail to rescue Woody Allen’s appalling, lazy dialogue.
Brolin is poor – and his hair is preposterous. But Naomi Watts, Antonio Banderas, Jones and Hopkins give it their best shot, and are defeated. There is such a paucity of jokes, you wonder if it’s actually a comedy at all. But if it’s not a comedy, it’s certainly no drama. A roll-call of fabulous British and Indian actors – none of who you can blame for agreeing to be in a Woody Allen film – spout written bollocks: Philip Glenister, Christian McKay (who has about two lines), Ewen Bremner, Anna Friel, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Anupam Kher, Frieda Pinto. It reminds me of Harrison Ford’s fabled remark to George Lucas while making Star Wars: “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.” (Johnny Harris, so magnificent in London To Brighton and This Is England ’86, gets a small part as a man in a gym – even he can’t do anything real with it.)
I fear that Woody is now so cocooned by yes-people, nobody would dare to criticise. And if I were an actor, I daresay I’d keep my mouth shut too. Honestly, on the evidence of Tall Dark Stranger, I think I’m now a better writer than Woody Allen.
And if the words don’t strike you as lazy, what about the glaring mistakes in the action? We see a character open their fridge in the kitchen and take out a cool beer, but the fridge, in the foreground, has no light on inside it, which rather suggests it’s a prop fridge and not plugged in. Did nobody see this? At a casino, Anthony Hopkins is seen peeling off £50 notes and handing them to his stupid girlfriend, who promptly lays them down on a roulette table, mid-game. I’m no gambling expert, but aren’t you supposed to pay for, and use, chips? Brolin’s writer has his second book with a publisher and keeps ringing up the publisher to see what he thinks. Does he not have a literary agent? A male character gets so drunk on Irish coffees he almost makes a pass at a female character, having just driven her home!
It’s bloody awful. If it was the first film of a new filmmaker who’d managed to convince a cast of prominent actors to appear in a low-budget film set in London, you’d just about let him off. But this is Woody Allen. Woody Allen!
The cover story in Sight and Sound, intelligently researched and written, and even eloquently argued, by Brad Stevens, is headlined In Defence Of Woody Allen, and finds “intriguing patterns” in his latter European films. The one intriguing pattern he doesn’t find is the one where Woody Allen goes all shit.
At the screening yesterday, at Warner Bros, the nice PR made a joke in her introduction about the assembled critics’ mauling of last week’s big Warner Bros release Hall Pass: “I hope you’re all in a better mood this morning!” Well, if we were, my guess is that You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger put paid to that.