The first Woody Allen film I ever watched was 2004’s Melinda & Melinda, a fairly forgettable film (and possibly boring, but I’m not sure since I can’t even remember it), that should have been much better considering its unique script, which was two different takes on the same story from both a comedic and dramatic viewpoint. Given that I had already prematurely claimed myself a film buff at that time, it’s kind of weird that I hadn’t seen any of Allen’s films yet. However, I’m glad that I hadn’t, because his films are much more enjoyable when you have relatable life experience, i.e., been in love, and making someone fall in love with me had proved quite difficult through that point in my life.
Since then, I’ve seen probably 12 or so of his films, and I can tell you my experience has been a grab bag of everything from good, to really good, to mediocre, to stunningly great, to simply awful. Go ahead right now and take a look at his IMDb filmography. He’s written and made a movie EVERY SINGLE YEAR since 1977. Every year! That’s unprecedented. So with a filmography that huge, everyone’s “Woody DNA” will inevitably be unique: some things you will hate that others love, and vice-versa. I plan on watching several more over the course of the spring and summer, and see what gems I have missed. Per my usual Film Friday column, I will lay out a couple I liked and one I hated. Just remember that your Woody DNA might be different than mine.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
VCB is your run of the mill Woody script, dealing with various love triangles and relationships. The thing that makes it your better-than-average Woody to me is the acting, which gives it substantially more charm than, say, Melinda & Melinda or Scoop. And the major source of that comes from Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz (who won an Oscar for her role), the violently-in-love couple depicted in the film (and in real life, since they just created what will probably be the most beautiful child in human history). I also enjoyed the Spanish locations and working in various elements from that culture, such as food, art, music, etc. Woody doesn’t really say anything new here, but it moves briskly and entertains easily. 7/10.
Hannah & Her Sisters (1986)
Romantic comedies are, in my opinion, one of the most difficult genres to do well—lots of filmmakers can do either funny or real, even in the same movie, but it’s hard to do both at the same time. That’s why, when I saw Annie Hall back over Christmas, I gave it a 9/10 and thought it was the best Woody Allen film I had seen thus far. That was until I watched Hannah & Her Sisters a couple of weeks ago, which now sets the bar for me.
The Manhattan-set story follows the lives and various romantic relationships of three sisters. Hannah (Mia Farrow) is a family-woman and down-to-earth homemaker, whose husband (Michael Caine) falls for her younger sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey), who is also in a relationship. Woody Allen also stars and basically reprises his role from Annie Hall, but is more charming and funny here than in that movie—and trust me, it was as weird for me to write as it was for you to read a sentence that contains the words “Woody Allen” and “charming” together, but it’s true. Finally, Dianne Weist, who won an Academy Award for this role, plays the eccentric third titular sister who rekindles a relationship with Allen’s character.
The script is chalk-full of relationship issues family-dynamics, but it’s all woven together marvelously. It’s not as funny as Annie Hall, but it is quite a bit more romantic. As I said with a review of that movie a few months ago, I wish Woody would slow down with his film-a-year routine and maybe try and tailor a script that functions at a level this high. 9.5/10 (for anyone keeping score at home, that's the highest mark I've given a film so far in this particular column).
Whatever Works (2009)
A year after the entertaining Vicky Christina Barcelona, Woody made the worst film of his that I’ve seen. I thought there could be no better vessel for the neurotic characters that Woody comes up with than Larry David, star of Curb Your Enthusiasm and creator of Seinfeld. But I was wrong—so wrong. All of the characters are the biggest stereotypes imaginable—the liberal elitist atheist, the bible-banging southerner, the naïve teenage bimbo—it got really old really fast. I haven’t had as big of an urge to walk out of a movie in a long time. 2/10.