To paraphrase economist Paul Krugman, who once characterized Newt Gingrich as a dumb person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like, Woody Allen is a simpleton’s image of an intellectual. The famously neurotic New Yorker keeps pumping out one fatuous film after the next, yet his reputation as a master auteur grows with each doozie he releases.
Allen’s latest, To Rome with Love, is excruciatingly bad. The film features a platoon-sized cast and as many frivolous subplots. It also features hackneyed hijinks, including a tenor who, able to sing mellifluously only while bathing, performs on stage in a portable shower stall, and the tired insertion of Allen playing his standard stammering fool. And it’s boring; at nearly two hours, the movie tests the audience’s patience.
Allen clearly surrounds himself with unquestioning yes-men that dare not second-guess a legendary icon and purported genius. But genius he’s not. Few of Allen’s 40-plus films are profound. While some like Annie Hall and Crimes and Misdemeanors have won undeserved praise for their supposed existentialism, typically his movies are mélanges of one-liners shoehorned into ponderous plots, which can only be described as philosophical when judged against the standard Hollywood pap catering to a teenage demographic.
A lack of consistency also bedevils many of Allen’s movies. In Take the Money and Run, Allen, playing an illiterate bank robber, pens an incomprehensible note demanding money during an ill-fated heist, prompting a spirited debate between tellers and customers alike as to what the chicken scratch actually says. It’s a hilarious scene in an otherwise forgettable movie. The same is true of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), which includes a laugh-out-loud sequence that envisions the male brain during sex as a NASA-like control room giving orders, including to white-uniformed sperm, one of them played by bespectacled Allen. Yet again the movie fails to deliver throughout.
Even though most of Allen’s work fall short, his comedies are far better than his dramas, which he seems to have recognized as his career progressed and he turned to more serious topics. In Stardust Memories, Allen, essentially playing himself, meets Martians who tell him: “We like your movies, particularly the early, funny ones.” The line has particular resonance in light of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Whatever Works, and Match Point, to name a few of his recent disappointments. This isn’t to say that all of his movies are terrible. A few like Mighty Aphrodite, a romantic comedy inspired by the myth of Pygmalion, hold their own, but most don’t.
One notable exception is Zelig, a pseudo documentary from 1983. Shot like a 1920’s newsreel, the film chronicles the life of Leonard Zelig, the “human chameleon,” a man so crippled with insecurity that he compensates by adopting the persona, mannerisms, and physical characteristics of those in his immediate company. Amongst rabbis, Leonard grows a beard and payos (sideburns); amongst the corpulent he grows rotund; and amongst blacks his own complexion darkens. Leonard’s adaptations, a function of his fragile psyche, harken to Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the ostracized and maligned Gregor Samsa, who awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a monstrous vermin. Like Gregor, Leonard’s inner turmoil is manifested corporally. It’s a powerful and insightful theme that Allen works to perfection.
But Allen’s movie, unlike Kafka’s masterpiece, isn’t dark. It’s riotous and surprisingly moving. And unlike Allen’s other films, Zelig flows well from beginning to end. Yet its very brilliance lays bare the mediocrity of the rest of Allen’s oeuvre and, in that vein, is the exception that proves the rule.
An artist’s period of creativity is often fleeting. It rarely lasts. Woody Allen’s creative career began early, as he started earning money as a teen by submitting one-liners to local newspapers. At 19 he was writing for the Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show and other famous programs, and soon thereafter he broke into stand-up comedy, which is where he did some of his best work. His sidesplitting act incorporated absurdist and surreal flourishes told with self-effacing flair.
Yet nearing 77, Allen no longer has anything to say or ideas to impart. He’s on automatic pilot. "I don't see myself not working," he told USA Today. "Not because of any great contribution I have to make, but because I would be sitting at home, brooding and being depressed. When I work, it keeps my mind on stupid, solvable problems. I'm thinking of the third act and how I can make it work." This may be a good reason for Allen to keep making movies, but it’s not a good reason for anyone to see them.