Woody Allen has spent the past fifteen years since Annie Hall prolifically staking a claim for cinematic greatness. Hardly a year has gone by without one or two films from the myopic, diminutive writer/director/performer, who wants as much to be a great artist as Richard Nixon wants to be a great statesman. The difference between Wily Woody and Tricky Dick is, of course, the critical consensus. Both in this country and abroad, where he is venerated beyond worship, critics have secured a pedestal in the Valhalla of popular culture. Indeed, in the wake of the recent Woody-Mia debacle, many have leaped to his defense without any knowledge of the particulars of the case on the principle that where their beloved New York wunderkind is concerned, art sublimates life.
This critic can claim no insight into the offscreen drama over the actress' accusations of child molestation and the director's denial of them in the media. For me, the films of Woody Allen are barely of passing interest, so it follows that his personal travails are scarcely more compelling than daytime soap opera. I wish Woody and Soon-Yi well after they tie the knot and open a chain of fruit-and-vegetable markets in New York City -- and Mia all the best in getting over it.
On the other hand, the alleged artistry, intelligence, humanity, and wit of Woody Allen is a portion of American mythology that is fascinating. How such a miserable, self-indulgent cretin can hoodwink a generation of filmgoers into placid acquiescence by his depictions of mature relationships in the big city is one of the mysteries of the age; only the appeal of President Reagan is more peculiar. The comparison is strangely apt: Woody Allen is our Great Prevaricator.
In his latest film, the second this year after the all but unwatchable Shadows and Fog, there is a heightened sense of autobiographical storytelling because the film is a treatment of marital breakup; indubitably, this real-life triangle is the best publicity stunt since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton went their separate ways after Divorce His, Divorce Hers on TV. For the first time, Allen has employed a device to lend credence to his time-worn habit of heaping one confessional monologue upon another -- the film, deliberately grainy and choppily edited in color, recalling the much more artful black-and-white cinematography of Zelig, is meant to be a cinema verite testimony of failed relationships. As there is an off-screen interlocutor, it could be a documentary, but a very inept and unsatisfying one -- a Sesame Street expose.
I have neither the patience nor the inclination to revisit each of the plagiaristic imbecilities Allen has once again foisted onto his public. But there are a couple of details that ask for comment. First, Allen plays a novelist and teacher named Gabe Roth, possibly a tribute to the novelist Philip Roth. The latter's oft-repeated pronouncements defending a line of separation between the imagination and real events has been adopted by Allen recently ("My films are works of fiction") as reporters have speculated on the parallels between his life and work. But interestingly, Gabe squarely falls into that hole when he praises a young student's fiction in the film, and immediately begins to look for real-life examples to justify her imagination. I don't believe for a minute that Woody Allen is mixed up about the difference -- it's all a ruse.
In Allen's world, the last item on the agenda is generosity. Instead, what he parades before you are the drabbest, most unremarkable, least attractive, and most unremittingly dull people imaginable -- and to boot, all they do is soliloquize about themselves. Never is there even the slightest suggestion that these urban heart-tuggers might spare a thought for someone else -- a friend, a spouse, anybody. It is the vision of a megalomaniacal buffoon and a master con man.
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One observation about poor Mia Farrow: With this film the actress, never very good but strangely appealing, ends her professional association with Allen after ten years. It comes as no surprise that she looks wilted, spent, and old, especially in comparison to her radiant loveliness in their first outing, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. Presumably this epicene, depressed, and middle-age waif is what Allen sees in Farrow these days, and he has chosen to replace it in private life. But he would do well in substituting it creatively, too. The only thing that stands unblemished by time in this pathetic chronicle is the Allen schnoz, as bulbous and unsightly as a boil.
Imagine sitting and listening to a man tell you, with halitosis, the story of his broken marriage from the very depths of the abyss: That's Woody's Allen's Husbands and Wives.
HUSBANDS AND WIVES
Written and directed by Woody Allen; with Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Juliette Lewis, Judy Davis, Sydney Pollack, Liam Neeson, and Blythe Danner.