Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Dylan Sucked For 10 Years Too, You Know 

I'm just going to link to two Woody Allen articles I cribbed from Gawker, and ask that, should you see Melinda and Melinda, and you might if it's ever be screened in a theater below Columbus Circle ("limited release" now seems to mean, in Mr. Allen's case, "only the Upper West Side, but shh! -- we're pretty sure we've gotten away with telling him we've actually distributed it"), give it a chance.

It's easy and fairly lazy to say that Woody's lost it for good at this point, and the Small Time Crooks/Curse of the Jade Scorpion/Hollywood Ending triptych nearly had me convinced for a while. But those of you old enough to not remember the '80s so fondly surely were disappointed by A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, or the Bergman-aping September and Another Woman. Let's not forget that Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives were not just three years, but two awful movies apart. (Can you name them without cheating? No? Good.)

And -- two of the three films directly preceding the aforementioned trilogy of sucking were some of his greatest movies in a decade.

Now here's where I'll lose most of you, and possibly begin to sound like the people who keep buying Neil Young albums: Anything Else was pretty damn good.

Why? How? It had Jason Biggs in it, fer chrissakes!

Well, yes, it did. And that was almost inexcusable. And yes, clearly Woody has never actually paid attention to how anyone under the age of 50 actually speaks, or what they talk about. And yes, Jimmy Fallon was also in it. But here's the thing: Woody's never written one single convincing non-Woody male character in his entire career. It just hasn't happened. Much like how Nabokov never wrote about BMX racing, it's just a thing you have to accept and the move on. In fact, move right on to the female characters. Because in Anything Else, they're perfect. Because while Biggs nearly drowns in borrowed mannerisms, Christina Ricci plays a brilliant role that never sounds like it was written for Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow twenty or thirty years ago. And then Stockard Channing shows up and gets the next best role. And then Woody went and added himself in a non-romantic role to deliver the damn jokes correctly and get off a bit of incongruously funny physical comedy. And there are jokes and a couple of them are perfect Allen one-liners of the sort that he hasn't unveiled since, well, Deconstructing Harry (his dry spells only last as long as the wait between, say, Silver Jews albums; you just have to get used to a little orchestral vamping between acts). And Woody's character is actually quite funny. Freed from the constraints of romantic lead-itis, Woody plays an apocalyptic survival nut with a persecution complex who teaches at a public school and actually drives his own car. This may be the closest we ever come to Allen actually acting, folks -- treasure it.

But Anything Else's saving grace (and I'm winding back to Melinda here, bear with me) is that it actually has ideas in it. It's worthy of analysis, it's worth trying to figure out authorial intent, it's smart. I see it as an essentially dark and cynical film about severing ties to other people and any notion of principle (the main character, the Woody surrogate, moves to L.A. at the end). The title is said twice, and attributed to cab drivers. It is presented as charming cabbie wisdom, but Slate correctly labels it a fatalistic shrug. It's a world ruled by small fascists in muscle shirts. Work is meaningless, love is a charade, and psychiatry is the cruelest joke inflicted on man since existence (Woody: "You have an analyst who, like God, never speaks, and who, like God, is dead...").

Which brings us to Melinda and Melinda. I don't think I liked it as much as Anything Else, but I also don't think I quite know what I thought. It was, in a way, a welcome return to the intellectual games of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but lighter. It was also less funny than Anything Else, but it was only meant to be 1/2 comedy. The lack of Woody's voice was a major drawback, but big, WASPy Will Farrell actually managed some Sleeper-quality physical comedy that almost made up for it. The female cast was, predictably, perfect, and the male cast was, predictably, floundering without a net. Woody's "straight" dialogue has become impressionistic and completely divorced from "reality" at this point -- but anyone who goes in expecting naturalism deserves what they get.

It actually worked quite well as a movie, separate from its impossibly famous author. I saw it in a full house of people who tittered at the melodrama, which is only occasionally risible, but the comedy produced genuine laughs. The thing is, we know as well as Woody that he can do romantic comedy. It may have been smarter to simply flesh that half out and ditch the central conceit. But, if you liked Another Woman (and I had a playwriting teacher who forced me into respecting it), well here's proof that he's still got that too. I mean, if you liked In the Bedroom, this is like having that on in the background.

I can say with great certainty that I preferred the "serious" half to every excruciating minute of the modern neo-melodrama 21 Grams, which was bizarrely praised by critics who, it seems were dazzled by warm color tones and non-linear editing. Well, critical establishment, this is the most goddam golden-tinted movie I've seen in years, and it occasionally jump-cuts to a high-concept comedy. And it still manages to not seem a pretentious pile of crap.

It's definitely less personal and more of an intellectual exercise than Anything Else, but no one treads water like Woody. Just give the damn thing a chance. At his current rate, even if he continues "losing it," he can still probably manage three or four more brilliant movies by the time his kids are old enough to start capitalizing on his name.

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