Who killed Woody Allen?

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.


20 thoughts on “Who killed Woody Allen?

  1. How may artists/performers etc actually improve their output as they get older? Very few I would suggest. Whether it’s Sean Connery as Bond, a Beatles album, or an Agatha Christie novel, the last few efforts all reduce in quality. The peak always comes in the middle or earlier.

    I would argue that as an author Ben Elton has improved over the years, and that your comment about him is based on the fact that he’s changed from a left wing right on comedian to a champagne socialist playwright.

  2. Completely agree, ‘You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger’ is appalling, another notch on a downward scale. ‘Whatever Works’, was pretty poor, but I almost stopped watching ‘Stranger’ 2 or 3 times. I do disagree though and think that it is Naomi Watts who brings the whole film crashing down around her. Unsympathetic and annoying to an almost unbelievable level (Woody almost forgetting how to write for women is his biggest crime)!

    Interestingly though you did miss out ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’, a little gem (and with Penélope Cruz, it brings back some of the sparkle from the Diane Keaton days) – an exception to an otherwise spot-on view of Mr. Allen’s last 10 years (although as a thriller Match Point has it’s moments).

  3. Could not agree more. It’s mind-boggling that someone that made such good films in the past could make such bollocks now. It’s testament to the fact that good filmmaking is about team work – it’s not just the vision of one individual.

    I’ve completely given up on Woody Allen now. I still watch his 70s stuff every now and again, maybe a couple of the others, but these days if Woody Allen’s directed a film, it’s usually a sure sign that it’s a bit crap. Shame.

  4. I’ve had this kind of obsession with other ‘artists’, usually musical ones, and the moment of realisation that they are now producing shit sometimes makes me revise my opinion of all their earlier ‘stuff’. The stuff I thought was really good. Is it just possible that Allen was never as good as you thought he was? Certainly in the last twenty years anyway?

    People have been giving him intellectual credit for his films that he hasn’t always earned pretty much from the start. He was clever and very different and that was good enough for me but some (and I’m not saying you!) have continued to project their own intellectual neediness into his work when it doesn’t deserve it. The same thing has happened with Mike Leigh too. For me Allen’s shark has been approaching for a very long time and when it finally arrived it was so old and decrepit, he didn’t have to jump it at all. He just sort of stumbled over it. Sad really.

    To answer my own question I suppose I’d be saying the same about Lennon if he’d survived and clearly he was great once. Maybe Allen was too.

    But just the early funny ones.

  5. Absolutely agree. Whatever Works was my own personal “I give up” moment, seeing him waste the usually hilarious Larry David with dialogue reheated from a sixties that never existed was just too much for me.

    and Vicky Cristina Barcelona was utter tosh as well, despite featuring a lesbian scene between two of the most gorgeous actresses around at the moment!

  6. Sadly, you’re right. But wouldn’t it be great if someone were able to say: ‘I happen to have Mr Allen right here, and he says: “I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work!”‘

  7. I completelt agree with Mr Letterman.

    The only 2 people I can think of in either in the music or film world who have gotten better with age are Morgan Freeman and Leslie Nielsen

    • Great article!

      In Las Vegas casinos what I gone went to, you put cash on the table which the croupier exchanges for chips, but I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t accept cash as a bet as the chips are colour-coded so they can give the winnings to the right person.

      Also, my fridge doesn’t have a light in it because it’s a proprietary bulb and I resent paying the people who made the fridge for a new one. I am assuming Josh Brolin doesn’t explain this after opening his fridge.

  8. Great piece, Andrew. Agree with everything you say, especially about liking the Manhatten period more than the early screwball stuff.

    Whatever Works, a collaboration of two of my all time favourite people, was pitiful. The only saving grace is that it is actually pretty difficult to see most Woody films, esp if you don’t live in London. I’ve never seen Cassandra’s Dream and I don’t think I ever will get to.

    However, I’m pretty sure I saw Jade Scorpion at the arts centre in Gloucester, suggesting that it did have some kind of UK release. It was a thin 90 mins of my life.

  9. I think I saw and hugely enjoyed the same Woody Allen season in 1982. Nearly thirty years ago. (BTW: “Thrills, Believe It Or Not” gave me my only chuckle yesterday. Clever wording. Cheers.) But I’ve barely seen any of his films since then, except, oddly, Scoop and another recent one. And they were both dubbed into German. It might be the best way to see them.

    I know it does happen, but I find it hard to conceive of a man in his seventies connecting with an audience thirty, forty, fifty years younger than he is through the medium of film. On the other hand, no one makes films for people in their seventies, do they? Maybe Woody Allen does. But I don’t think he does. I don’t think he’s making films for himself, and I don’t think he knows the people he is making them for. He knows *of* them. But he doesn’t know who they are.

    He gave us most of his life. Sacrificed most of his life. What did he do that was wrong? He didn’t know it was wrong.

    I kind of wish Macca would retire. But he wrote all that good stuff largely – I have to admit – without my help. I guess he can make his own mind up. I left him to it circa 1982, funnily enough. But whatever he does, something like She’s Leaving Home will stand – undimmed – on its own merits. And if I’d written just one song that hit on a universal truth like that one does, I think I’d carry on trying to do it again for the rest of my life.

    A whole string of records no one needs to hear. A whole string of films no one needs to see. For no one. Does it really matter? Maybe it does if you don’t want to be reminded that we’re all fallible, and we all get old, decay, and/or die. And who does want to be reminded of that? We all have to find a way of carrying on in the face of it. Dylan keeps touring. Macca keeps his eyebrows aloft. And Woody Allen doesn’t make existential films. He makes lightweight films mostly populated with people much younger than he is.

    You could just avert your eyes. Or tell him his films are shite. But when some thirty year old tells you the titles of your blog entries are pointless and you should just give up, don’t listen to him.

    (I just read that back. I’m not drunk, but I am feeling unwell. Forgive me.)

  10. It was like reading something I would have written, if I were any good at writing. I feel exactly the same about Allen’s work. I love watching his work, between Annie Hall and Sweet and Lowdown lies some of my favourite films to re-watch, over and over again.

    Did ‘The Curse of the Jade Scorpion’ get released in the UK? I hope I didn’t dream it, but I watched it at the cinema on Haymarket, which was a UGC back then I think, now a Cineworld. It was pretty bad and I was very disappointed.

  11. Melinda and Melinda was great and I enjoyed Vicky Cristina Barcelona – bonkers arty farty type Penelope Cruz won an oscar for that. and it was pretty good all round. he needs better co-writers or else he should just re-write old plots. it used to work for shakespeare.

  12. “All I can say, with my hand on my heart, is that when we were making it, and filming it, we all thought it was very funny. It just goes to show.”

    Andrew Collins on The Persuasionists (blog entry)

    You answered your own question!

    I know it’s easy to forget, but the creator is often the last person qualified to pass judgement on their own work. They’ll never really hear or see what the audience hears and sees, because of the prism of being involved. Paul McCartney can’t tell the difference between Paperback Writer and his last solo single. Not really. He just gets on with making new stuff and hopes for the best. As should Woody Allen, as should we all, if we can. All new art is worthwhile. No one should tell Woody Allen to stop making films.

    Just saw “You Will Meet…”. It’s okay. A few good lines and gags – really! And a bit better than Match Point. Now THAT was the film in which I felt just the same way you did. An overriding desire to shout, “Why didn’t someone TELL Woody Allen how bad this script is at the time?”

    But a lot of people liked it. Taste is taste. And maybe in time Annie Hall will look a bit dated and Match Point will look ambitious and clever. Even critical consensus does complete u-turns – (Dexys’ Don’t Stand Me Down, for one)!

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