Around the time Husbands and Wives was released in 1992, Woody Allen had tap danced himself into the crosshairs of the media and the public. Overshadowing his take on Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage was his personal life. I think we all know the story by now, but a quick summation amounts to Mia Farrow, and the rest of the country several months later, discovering that Allen had been having an affair with Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi, who had been adopted when Farrow had been with Andre Previn. After that film, Allen released a fair number of interesting, if not masterful, films: the charming Manhattan Murder Mystery with Diane Keaton (think middle aged Alvy and Annie Hall), the outstanding Bullets Over Broadway, the quaint take on Pygmalion Mighty Aphrodite, the music infused Everybody Says I Love You, the meta-textual Deconstructing Harry (a great article on Allen’s meta-reflexivity can be found here by Ronan Doyle), and the fictitious biopic Sweet and Lowdown. But after Allen’s update of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita by way of the nihilistic Celebrity, things started to go downhill.
He did some time with DreamWorks Pictures and almost all of the films were lackluster. Every Allen enthusiast wants to forget that Small Time Crooks and The Curse of the jade Scorpion ever happened. However, arguably his two worst in his filmography, Hollywood Ending in 2002 and Anything Else in 2003, are crucial to understanding his filmography and represent an important point in the filmmaker’s work and turning point. For, after those two films (disregarding Melinda and Melinda), Allen would get back on top in 2005 with his move to Europe and his dramatic, somewhat Crimes and Misdemeanors-esque Match Point.
Upon its release in 2005, Match Point was declared a “return to form” by many, many critics. (And they haven’t stopped using that term every other year since then.) Since Match Point, the New York native has roamed around Europe, continuing to make hit or miss films. But, while they may not always be great (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), they at least show signs of a new, reinvigorated Allen. He needed the move and you can tell in Hollywood Ending and Anything Else.
Let’s begin with Hollywood Ending: Val Wexman (Allen) is a former star director, and Oscar winner whose career has fallen by the wayside and is now mostly built on television commercials. (Life imitating art? Allen always denies the connections between his personal life and his work, but, although Allen has yet to give up completely and move to TV commercials, his recent filmography up to then had been disappointing.) His former wife, Ellie (Tea Leoni), offers him the chance to reboot his career with a massive period piece. There are, however, existing tensions: his wife left him for the studio honcho (Treat Williams) and Val hates that. But, he takes the job anyway. After Wexman’s various idiosyncratic demands for a foreign Director of Photography, a flamboyant and expensive set designer, and a finicky art director, he wakes up one day to realize he can’t see. He literally cannot see. He becomes afflicted with a psychosomatic case of blindness, and he really loses sight of his work.
The following 90 minute of the film are various gags involving Allen’s inability to see what he’s doing, resulting in bedlam on the set. Unlike his days of Sleeper-like slapstick or anything like that, it just seems lousy and unfunny. The problem is, regardless of how clever the concept is (in a very “I see what you did there” kind of way), it feels pretty lifeless. There’s no verve to it, and the lackluster dialogue isn’t given the same kind of ring or deadpan/whiny power it did with other actors or scenarios. It feels, in a word, tired. By then, 2002, the United States hadn’t exactly forgotten Allen, but just sort of brushed him aside. He was getting on in age and, like Wexman, had been struggling to make a “hit” (at least in terms of Allen, so more critically speaking than commercially) for years.
The problem with Allen’s factory-like churning of film after film, every single year (the last time he took a break was 1981 between Stardust Memories and A midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy) is that one is, of course, prone to failure. But failure isn’t bad, half-heartedness is. Hollywood Ending and Anything Else are both guilty of this. But the former remains crucial to understanding his body of work not because of its fairly sub-par quality, but because, when it hits its (very infrequent) highs, it represents a self-actualization for Allen. Feeling kind of like “let’s give it another go and see what happens”, Allen, and his on screen persona, come to realize that they truly don’t remember why what worked before worked in the first place. For a filmmaker as confident as Allen (I mean, you have to be pretty damn confident to release a film every year), it’s odd to see such a misstep in quality, at least one as drastic as this. Wexman, though, understand that maybe it’s time to move on. As everyone on set and in the cast flounders around the film, Wexman, like Allen, pushes through to the end. The film is met with a poor response and is a box office flop. But…
The light on the horizon is that the French love it. Sort of prophetic in a way? Perhaps. But Europe has always appreciated filmmakers as much or more than the United States has, notably the Auteur Theory driven writers of Cahiers du Cinema. After Deconstructing Harry in 1997, Allen took some time off and to tour Europe with his jazz band, which was documented in Barbara Kopple’s Wild Man Blues. Clearly, judging from that documentary alone, the French really do love him. His love letter to France in Midnight in Paris shows that Europe really has invigorated him.
Anything Else isn’t so much deplorable as it is disappointing and shockingly nihilistic. Even for Allen, a man who holds Bergman up on a tier that few others can reach, Anything Else is very, very pessimistic about romance, life, and possibilities in one’s own backyard. It suffers from some terrible miscasting with Jason Biggs as a struggling comedian with a high maintenance girlfriend (Christina Ricci) and a nebbish friend who works as the man with the words of wisdom, played by Allen himself. Said struggling writer, Jerry Falk, is having trouble with his girlfriend, Amanda, as she has, since their meeting, become rather unresponsive emotionally and sexually. He seeks advice from David Dobel, his friend and mentor of sorts.
The film is actually kind of amusing at times, with Allen mostly delivering some solid lines. They’re better as straight one liners rather than as dialogue, but they’re funny nonetheless. However, the bulk of the film is essentially Annie Hall Redux, with some moments of other Allen films in there. Amanda’s cold, sort of shrewy nature is basically of the weaker archetypes that Allen has used multiple times, like in Stardust Memories, and it weighs down the story significantly. Jason Biggs breaks the fourth wall multiple times, including flashback scenes, just reminding the audience that a) Biggs is not the right guy to play this role and b) that method of winking at the audience was done better and with less frequency in Annie Hall.
What is slightly odd about Anything Else isn’t exactly the half-heartedness which is apparent in every scene (the dialogue is so tin eared, it sounds like an unfinished draft from Woody’s 1970s period), but how pessimistic the film is. Almost every piece of advice Dobel gives to Jerry is in the negative, that something will happen to Jerry unless he does something about it and, essentially, “why bother since life is meaningless anyways”. Allen has been contemplating the meaninglessness of life for decades, but the ham-fistedness and heavy handedness of this seems slightly atypical. It’s as if that he’s so tired of his own material, he is, as with Hollywood Ending, giving it one last shot, all the rails gone, to see if it works. It actually becomes fairly depressing for a comedy by Allen, and considering he made Crimes and Misdemeanors, I think that’s saying something. We’re talking Interiors levels of nihilism.
But, as with Hollywood Ending, there’s sort of a silver lining. Towards the end of the film, Jerry and Dobel decide to move out to California to restart their lives and begin from scratch. They want to rough it as comedy writers, live the dream. That falls short a little bit, as Dobel gets into trouble right before the move, but the existence of an impetus for a move of any sort for the Allen-ish character, Jerry, is important. Allen may not have moved to California to make films, but he did move.
Once again, in Anything Else, there is a hint at self-actualization; that Allen knows what he’s doing and, better, knows what he has to do next. Jerry Falk spends the bulk of the film (once again, running much longer than necessary), either complaining to living under the shadow of his girlfriend’s power. It’s a fairly unflattering portrait, but it’s as if Jerry is Woody Allen and Amanda is New York or at least the sameness of the films he had been making at that time. What does he do? He deices to move onto greener pastures, and for the better.
Both Hollywood Ending and Anything Else take place in New York and there are feeble attempts throughout both films to recreate certain iconic shots from Allen’s earlier films, from the memorable Queensboro Bridge from Manhattan to walking the streets of Brooklyn in Annie Hall. It’s a struggle of both films to balance what Allen wants to do and what he is able to do in the film.
For, both Hollywood Ending and Anything Else are stale and sloppy and, qualitatively speaking, insignificant. But maybe, were it not for these two films, he wouldn’t have gone to Europe to transition from, what critic FX Feeney calls, “a Metropolitan filmmaker” to “a Cosmopolitan filmmaker”. It’s clear that his European work has some interesting hues in it, dramatically, comedically, and stylistically. He channels the lusty passion of Spain in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the nostalgic atmosphere of Paris in Midnight in Paris, the manic daily life in Rome in To Rome with Love and the class warfare in Match Point.
Allen did move to California, though, only recently for his latest film Blue Jasmine. In a battle of good versus evil, it’s the first time he’s allowed his home to take on a polished look that only serves as a bad omen. In his riff on A Streetcar Named Desire, he used the setting to further illustrate Jasmine’s (a terrifying Cate Blanchett) psychosis. It indicates that maybe New York was getting a little old and that other locales really seemed to inspire him.
It is almost never fun watching a bad Woody Allen film. Thankfully, those are infrequent, but even with things like Hollywood Ending and Anything Else, it’s essential to understand that, were it not for those films, Allen wouldn’t be making great films elsewhere. The two films represent a point in Allen’s filmography where Allen understands what he is doing and has been doing and knows that it is time to explore his artistry elsewhere. Whatever vitality these two films lack, it reemerges in his recent work, and thank goodness for that. Hopefully, Allen will continue to sprinkle our stardust memories with more great films.