Thursday, July 26, 2007
This year marks the tenth anniversary of one of Woody Allen's fiercest and most confessional films, the caustic DECONSTRUCTING HARRY. I thought that with the recent announcement that he was going to be making another film with Scarlett Johansson, that this would be a good time to look back at one of America's most influential and controversial directors and his much maligned last decade.
1997's DECONSTRUCTING HARRY is one of the great Woody Allen films but it wouldn't be one that would be embraced by everyone. A surprisingly profane and dark autobiographical film that featured Woody working with Elisabeth Shue, Amy Irving and Mariel Hemingway among others, DECONSTRUCTING HARRY is, with the possible exceptions of STARDUST MEMORIES (1980) and INTERIORS (1978), the darkest film Woody Allen has ever made. It is also a very funny film and it would get him yet another Best Screenplay Academy Award nomination.
After wrapping up DECONSTRUCTING HARRY, Woody quickly started work on the flawed CELEBRITY (1998). Even though it features a great early performance by Charlize Theron, CELEBRITY remains one of my least favorite Allen films. I just can't warm up to it and the film felt like a major let down after the stunning DECONSTRUCTING HARRY. Kenneth Branagh's irritating turn as the Woody Allen like Lee Simon is a real low point in Allen's canon and at nearly two hours the film really drags and it isn't very funny. It's one of the weaker films in Allen's career in my opinion.
1999's SWEET AND LOWDOWN was a real winner though and offered up one of Sean Penn's greatest performances as the jazz guitarist Emmet Ray. This sweet and very effective film would garner Penn a much deserved Oscar nomination and would also contain appealing performances from Gretchen Mol and Woody himself. The film is a real stirring tribute to the jazz music that Woody loves so much and remains one of his best since DECONSTRUCTING HARRY. Woody's fine screenplay was surprisingly ignored by the Academy that year but the film did get him some of his most solid reviews of the past ten years.
Woody's next three projects are three of the slightest films he has ever made. SMALL TIME CROOKS (2000) is a pleasant little film that has some solid laughs but is never substantial enough to be included among the best of Woody's straight comedies. It was a lot better though than the follow up, 2001's unfortunate CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION. Unfortunate, in that it could have been one of the great films but the writing is among Woody's dullest even though Helen Hunt, Wallace Shawn and Chalize Theron give it all they can. The most notable thing about CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION is how good SHOWGIRLS star Elizabeth Berkley is in it. She provides the film with some of its best moments in a winning little performance and it's a shame that it is in possibly the worst film that Allen has ever delivered.
HOLLYWOOD ENDING (2002) feels like a masterpiece compared to SMALL TIME CROOKS and CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION but in retrospect it is just a gag heavy film that is consistently funny if little else. George Hamilton gets perhaps the funniest moments in the film and Tea Leoni is always a pleasure to watch, but the film is ultimately a little too lightweight for its own good.
With these three films it seemed that Woody had hit some sort of creative wall but 2003's ANYTHING ELSE was one of the most surprising films he had made, at least since SWEET AND LOWDOWN. A flawed but engaging film, ANYTHING ELSE tells the tale of a struggling twenty something couple and the neurotic older mentor who attempts to help them through the troubles. Jason Biggs seems a little lost in the film but Christina Ricci is fantastic and in the role of the odd David Dobel, Woody gives his best screen performance since DECONSTRUCTING HARRY.
ANYTHING ELSE wasn't the great film Woody needed at this point but it was a step in the right direction. MELINDA AND MELINDA (2004) though was nearly a masterpiece and is one of the great modern Woody Allen films. Featuring an astonishing turn by Radha Mitchell (one of my favorite performances of the decade) MELINDA AND MELINDA is Woody firing on nearly all cylinders. With it's split narrative and stellar supporting cast MELINDA AND MELINDA is frame for frame probably the best film Woody has made in the past ten years. Mitchell's pitch perfect double lead role performance is one of the greatest in any Woody Allen film, the equal of anything that Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow ever delivered for him which is no small feat.
MELINDA AND MELINDA seemed to re-energize Woody Allen but no one would have guessed his next move. Abandoning New York City for one of the first times in his career and signing on possibly the best young American actress in modern cinema, Woody would travel to London to make a cold thriller about class and adultery that would garner him his best reviews since CRIME AND MISDEMEANORS (1989).
Woody's first collaboration with Scarlett Johansson, MATCH POINT (2005) seemed to split critics and fans immediately. Roger Ebert would call it a masterpiece and label it one of Allen's greatest films while Tim Lucas called the film "bland." I must admit to liking the film a lot although I don't think it is one of Allen's greatest works. MATCH POINT is an incredibly cold film and it does have a certain lifeless quality that Tim seemed to pick up on. Whatever ones opinion of it is though there is no denying that it was a break from the near rut Allen had gotten himself into around 2001.
While MATCH POINT does contain good work from everyone involved, it ultimately belongs to Johansson who has more presence than almost anyone on the screen today. There is a real strange physicality to her deliberately monotone performance in this film. The breakdown she has towards the end, where her perfect calm exterior snaps, is jolting and one of the great moments in both her and Woody's career.
Even better to me though is the much maligned SCOOP from last year. I might be one of the only film fans in the world who prefers this charming old fashioned and warm film to the cold and cynical MATCH POINT. I have watched SCOOP several times since I first saw it last year and it makes me laugh harder than anything Woody has done in nearly twenty years. The film is again shot in London with Johansson and again she makes the film work. Her performance here is the polar opposite of the MATCH POINT, as the neurotic and near sighted young reporter Sondra Pransky, Scarlett is a combination Myrna Loy and Carole Lombard and is incredibly funny throughout the brisk film. I've seen a lot of people question Scarlett Johansson's acting ability, I would suggest watching a double feature of MATCH POINT and SCOOP to see just how diverse and talented this young actress is. While neither match her work in GHOST WORLD or LOST IN TRANSLATION, her films so far with Woody Allen will one day be looked back on very fondly in tracing her career.
SCOOP, for me, returned Woody to the top tier of American filmmakers. While he will probably never again reach the heights of ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN or HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, I think the aging Allen has a few more surprises left up his sleeve.
Up next for Woody Allen is CASSANDRA'S DREAM, another London based film, this time starring Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor.
Even more promising is the intriguing 'Spanish Project' that Woody is cooking up. Working once again with Johansson as well as Allen newcomers Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem and currently shooting in Spain, I have a feeling this will be a very special film in Woody Allen's canon. Of course it could be another CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION. Masterpiece or miss, I will be there opening day, cheering on one of America's most iconic, troubling and legendary filmmakers.