Defending Woody

As New York Times film critic A.O. Scott noted recently,The yearly Woody Allen release has become a reliably anti-climactic American cinematic event. Once considered a great film auteur, Allen has, over the last 10 years, come to be thought of as an ex-genius who has lost his touch. His most unwavering admirers (an endangered species) await his films with bated breath, hoping they'll be solid enough to maintain his precarious status as a nonetheless important American filmmaker; his harshest critics unfailingly trash each of his pictures as further evidence of a stale artistic sensibility increasingly alienated from our cultural moment. Some suggest that Allen abandon his rigorous one-film-a-year work ethic and try to make the next one count; others go as far as to wish that he stop making movies altogether, since he has nothing left to say.

This collective disdain has been perhaps the most unjustified condemnation of a still vitally talented film genius that America has seen in recent years. While Allen's films over the past decade don't measure up to his masterpieces – they lack the nonstop laughs of Sleeper (1973), the bittersweet zing of Annie Hall (1977), the romantic vision of Manhattan (1979), the novelistic complexity of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), or the dark philosophical pull of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) – they are still a remarkably diverse and inventive bunch of movies, varying slightly in quality, but all exuberant and tricky in their own way. In a just world, Woody Allen's recent body of work would enable him to guard his title as one of the consistently best American directors. But for various reasons, not all of them necessarily related to the films themselves, Allen is widely regarded as having fallen from creative grace.

His new film, Melinda and Melinda, which opens Friday in select cities, alternates tragic and comic versions of the same story: A troubled young woman inadvertently wreaks emotional havoc on the lives of those around her. The film has generated buzz as Allen's most substantial work in years. As is often the case, the advance word is misleading: Melinda and Melinda is in fact just as light as most of Allen's latest fare, and sometimes disappointingly flat; as is always the case with Allen's films, it's still far more interesting than the majority of American movies. Allen takes off from a rather thin narrative gimmick: debating whether life is essentially comic or tragic, two writers take turns spinning a tale about the alluring but unstable Melinda, each in his fashion. In the tragic take, a chain-smoking, pill-popping Melinda (Radha Mitchell) tries to escape a tumultuous past and ends up a catalyst for romantic chaos revolving around a charming pianist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the deteriorating marriage of her childhood friend Laurel (Chlo� Sevigny) to an alcoholic actor (Jonny Lee Miller). In the comic take, an innocuously frazzled Melinda becomes the object of desire for Hobie (Will Ferrell), a bumbling out-of-work actor married to a self-absorbed director (Amanda Peet).

Much of the film is graceful and absorbing, and Mitchell is compelling – by turns ravaged and charming – in her dual roles. Yet there's an occasional sense of slackness and inconsequentiality about it all. The tragic version has several lovely moments, many of which can be attributed to Sevigny's marvelously delicate portrayal of a rich girl realizing the price of the conventional life she's chosen. What's missing is a sense of danger, a sense that there's something truly at stake in the characters' crises. Part of the problem is that Melinda's stormy history is so trite and unconvincing that a climactic betrayal which threatens her newfound happiness doesn't sting the way it should. The comic version is warm and engaging, but its Melinda is rather blandly conceived, and apart from a few sequences – particularly a disastrous day trip to the Hamptons with a studly dentist – the laughs just aren't frequent enough. Allen's implication that the distinction between comedy and tragedy is blurry – that comedy is laced with sadness and tragedy contains elements of the ridiculous – is haunting, but one can't help wishing that his tragic version was slightly darker and his comic version slightly wittier.

If Melinda and Melinda is not the best of Allen's recent films, it's still ample proof that his filmmaking talent is very much alive. As always, he gets uniformly strong performances from his actors, all perfectly at home in Allen's universe of articulate, unhappy New Yorkers. If Ferrell, in the Allen surrogate role, lacks the irrational spark that Allen himself would have given to the line readings, he has a softness that pays off beautifully when he finally confesses his feelings for Melinda. And Miller and Peet do sharp send-ups of their insecure industry climbers without ever crossing over into mockery. Despite its shortcomings, there's something about Melinda and Melinda – a reflective quality, a sweetness – that lingers with you: it may not be a fully realized piece of work, but like all of Allen's films, no matter how slight, it's not like anything else out there.

A survey proves that the same is true for all of the director's movies over the last 10 years, during which anti-Allenism has hit its virulent peak. Everyone Says I Love You (1996) is the most delightfully imaginative modern movie musical, and contains Allen's single most romantic scene, in which Goldie Hawn breaks into flight while dancing along the Seine. Some critics emphasized the sheepishly amateurish singing of the actors; some of us think that therein lies the film's magical charm, as the characters themselves look surprised to be bursting into song. In a jarring transition, Allen's next movie, 1997's Deconstructing Harry, is his nastiest piece of work to date – a diatribe against marriage, religion, and the literary world – but also one of his most vividly imagined (who can forget his elevator-equipped Hell, presided over by a grinning Billy Crystal?) and dazzling acted by a dynamic ensemble. The equally angry Celebrity (1998) is a mess – choppy, unevenly written, with an abrasive Kenneth Branagh – but it's a fascinating mess, full of bitterly funny flashes and featuring one of the most gorgeous moments Allen has ever filmed: a midnight rendezvous outside a subway station between Branagh and Winona Ryder.

1999's Sweet and Lowdown, a tart yet deeply affecting comedy about a 1930s jazz musician (an inspired Sean Penn), marked Allen's return to more intimate filmmaking. The result was not only a vibrant homage to this period of jazz history, but also a penetrating examination of the loneliness of artistic genius. Then came two decidedly small-scale films: Small Time Crooks (2000), a nimble, affectionate satire of the nouveau riche, is perhaps the flat-out funniest of Allen's recent movies; The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), a period caper with charmingly corny banter between Allen and Helen Hunt's take-charge efficiency expert, was dismissed as pointless by critics who ignored the film's crisp pacing and ingenious re-creation of 1940's office life.

2002's Hollywood Ending, in which a director shoots his comeback film while battling psychosomatic blindness, received some of the worst reviews of Allen's career. But if the movie is more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, it's nonetheless awfully entertaining and clever in its conception of cinematic brilliance as utterly random. Finally there's Anything Else (2003), the most brutally underrated film of Allen's career, a jazzy, poignant comedy about a young writer (a soulful Jason Biggs, conveying a vulnerability and an impeccable comic timing untapped in his teen comedy roles) stumbling towards independence while getting his heart broken by a mercurial girlfriend (Christina Ricci). It's a movie of sublime moments: Biggs trying to strike the perfect pose as he waits for Ricci before their first date; Stockard Channing singing "There'll Be Another Spring" during one of Biggs' and Ricci's late-night spats; Biggs spying on Ricci as she leaves her acting class, to the strains of Billie Holliday singing "Just the Way You Look Tonight." Anything Else is the loosest, most mature and generous of Allen's recent films, and one of the overlooked treasures of 2003.

No great filmmaker has ever been expected to make masterpiece after masterpiece. Why then are American critics so hard on Allen, who has continued to craft superior entertainments, even if they're not as ambitious as much of his earlier work? Many say that he's been repeating himself for the last 10 years, an absurdly inaccurate claim given the striking diversity of his latest phase of work. Allen has integrated themes of art, love, New York, and existential distress into an escapist musical, two period pieces, slapstick comedies about blue-collar anxiety and filmmaking, acerbic confessional films about the narcissism of writers and the poison of fame, a wistful ode to 20-something heartbreak, and a genre exercise about the thin line between laughter and despair. He has indeed proven as resourceful as any contemporary director in finding different contexts and tones with which to explore his preferred preoccupations.

Another accusation leveled against Allen is that he's become increasingly mean-spirited in his portrayals of women. There's no denying that Allen's female characters are sometimes difficult and high-strung, but to label him a misogynist is a knee-jerk oversimplification. The pursuit of romantic fulfillment – and the frustration at sometimes falling short – has been the unifying theme of Allen's work, and few American male directors have confronted their messy feelings towards women with such candor and originality. Allen's last 10 years of work boast a plethora of rich, smart female roles (a rarity in America cinema which generally favors charming wallflowers) and a wealth of memorable female performances. Those who claim that women in Allen's films are almost invariably monsters have not been paying attention: in Everyone Says I Love You, a warm, grounded Goldie Hawn plays Allen's ex-wife whom he continues to go to for advice; in Deconstructing Harry, the hilarious Hazelle Goodman is a no-nonsense prostitute who's the only one able to talk Harry through his breakdowns; Samantha Morton's touchingly steadfast Hattie is the sympathetic moral compass of Sweet and Lowdown; Tea Leoni's likeable, brisk Ellie is the heroine of Hollywood Ending, guiding the blind Allen through his film shoot, while never forgetting to put him in his place; Radha Mitchell's comic Melinda in Allen's latest is a less flighty variation of Annie Hall who's intuitive enough to choose the right guy.

Moreover, many of the characters who have been cited as proof of Allen's contempt for women are far more complex than one might think. The furious ladies of Deconstructing Harry – Judy Davis, Kirstie Alley, Demi Moore, Amy Irving, and Caroline Aaron, all superb – may be shrill, but they're also warranted in their anger. In scenes of lacerating comic rage, Allen has them vent their grievances against him without letting us forget that it's his own selfish character on trial. Small Time Crooks features Tracey Ullman as a shameless social climber and Elaine May as her riotously dimwitted cousin, but both are so lovingly rendered that they end up stealing the film. Anything Else's Amanda is a manipulator, but as played by a devastatingly charismatic Christina Ricci, she's also captivating; we see why Biggs is trapped in his romantic fascination even as she's trampling all over him.

Even more critics have griped about the aging Allen's selection of young, attractive actresses as his romantic costars. The director knows that few can play his fidgety, verbally-inclined protagonists as well as he can, and many of Allen's detractors seem to have missed the sly angles he uses to justify unlikely pairings: in Everyone Says I Love You, Allen has to get inside information about Julia Roberts' secret passions and present himself as her soul-mate in order for her to fall for him; in Deconstructing Harry, Elisabeth Shue's radiant Fay is an infatuated fan of Allen's character's novels, but leaves him once she realizes the limitations of this kind of adoration; when Charlize Theron's bored Manhattan princess seduces Allen in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, she declares it's an experiment in sleeping with unathletic-looking men. Complaints about Allen's cinematic dealings with women indeed seem more like backlash in regards to his real-life situations than well thought-out objections. Natural disgust over Allen's personal scandals mixed with an unfortunate American tendency to judge the public figure by the private life have undoubtedly contributed to the unforgiving reception of the filmmaker's work over the last 10 years. Allen's so-called artistic "decline" coincides a bit too neatly with his highly publicized break-up, unorthodox re-marriage, and allegations of child molestation.

Perhaps the most cutting criticism of Allen is that he's become tone-deaf in portraying the way people behave and speak. Yet has Allen ever truly sought to represent common modes of expression or typical emotional inclinations? His affair with Mariel Hemingway's high-schooler in Manhattan, the romantic confusion of Hannah and Her Sisters, the overheard therapy sessions of Another Woman, the intertwining of marital crisis and magical realism in Alice, the murder in Crimes and Misdemeanors – all involve specific people confronting crises within their rarefied lives, reacting in fashions sprung more from Allen's own distinctive way of being and intellectual influences than from any social reality. Rather than taking the pulse of disillusioned modern souls (like a Neil LaBute, Todd Solondz, or Alexander Payne), Allen has always been both an intensely personal and deeply nostalgic filmmaker. The arpeggios of neurotic dialogue, the references to Russian literature, French cinema, and German philosophy, the classic jazz soundtracks, and the brainy men "crazy about" enchantingly unhinged women have never been especially authentic indications of current American cultural tendencies. Perhaps critics are correct in noting that Allen's artistic sensibility seems more out of tune with our times than ever. I'm still not sure why this is a problem. And so what if his newer films aren't as good as his older ones? Woody Allen is a stubborn artist who sticks around, desperately attached to his own vision of things, which he continues to bring to the screen every year with generally impressive results. This in itself is worthy not only of respect, but of celebration.

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