By Linc Leifeste | February 1, 2012
Director: Woody Allen
Writers: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, Shelley Duvall, Janet Margolin, Colleen Dewhurst, Christopher Walken
Having been born in 1973, I was too young to see Woody Allen’s best works in the theater. If memory serves correct, I believe 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway, which I still have a soft spot for, was the first Woody Allen film I witnessed on the big screen. And to be quite honest, my track record for catching Allen’s output since then has been unsteady at best. Likewise, my efforts at working through his extensive back-catalog has been sincere but less than noteworthy. And most of this I blame on Allen’s 1977 masterpiece, Annie Hall, with which Woody Allen somehow managed to bottle lightning in one of those rarely repeatable feats, a film that would make my short list of filmed perfection. After experiencing its magic (along with other Allen classics such as Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors) it made it harder to be interested in sitting through some of the misses in Allen’s long hit and miss career, although I’ll be the first to admit that even a Woody Allen miss is still better than much of what makes it to the big screen.
Annie Hall tells the story of Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), a successful stand-up comedian (he’s hilariously recognized by a stranger on the street from his Johnny Carson appearances), focusing on his generally unsuccessful attempts at romantic relationships, particularly one with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), a sweet and quirky aspiring nightclub singer. By this point we’re probably all intimately familiar with the recurring Woody Allen character, with its combination of self-deprecating and elitist strains, cynical and insecure and always in therapy with evidently no results, a character that most (like me), correctly or not, probably see as an exaggerated version of its creator. Alvy Singer is probably the archetype of those characters, with his existential angst and razor sharp wit that as often as not is turned on himself and his inability to stop thinking long enough to enjoy anything. At times I can’t help but think of him as a grown up Jewish version of Charlie Brown.
While Woody Allen’s earlier films had shown flashes of brilliance, Annie Hall represented a real maturation in my estimation. While still maintaining elements of his more gonzo and slapstick inclinations, this was a movie that dealt with mature issues on a personal and philosophical level. At its core the movie is about relationships and the inevitability of their failures. And while both lead characters are in some ways extreme examples of dysfunctional people, they’re both believable, and maybe even more importantly, likeable. I’d like to think that most people can see at least some small part of themselves in Annie Hall and Alvy Singer. So by the end of the film, when the relationship has gone past the point of no return, it’s hard not to take the loss personally. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the chemistry between Allen and Keaton is every bit as electric, and much more lovably awkward, as that between legendary screen couples Bogart and Bacall or Tracy and Hepburn.
Annie Hall combines intensely sharp dialogue with spot-on performances from the entire cast, creating some of the most memorable characters and quotes in all of film. Whether it’s Shelley Duvall’s post-sex commentary “Sex with you is really a Kafkaesque experience” or Christopher Walken’s brilliant appearance as Annie Hall’s crazed brother or Paul Simon’s smarmy LA record producer or Alvy Singer’s ode to masturbation “Don’t knock masturbation, it’s sex with someone I love,” the film is filled with moments that stay in your head long after the film is over. Even Jeff Goldblum’s one-line appearance is a joy to behold. This combined with it’s absurdist elements (characters talking to the camera, flashback scenes featuring discussion between past and present characters, subtitles giving the real thoughts of characters instead of their spoken words, characters suddenly becoming cartoons, etc.), all pared down to a lean 93-minute run time, makes for existential comedy at its finest.
As is often the case with movies of this vintage and this caliber, I tend to fantasize about what it must have been like to see it upon release, before a whole industry had followed in its wake (yes, I’m talking about Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm and countless other shows that probably wouldn’t exist without Woody Allen), but that’s not possible. Regardless, despite being an unbelievable thirty-five years old, Annie Hall is still remarkably fresh and vibrant today and just having been released on blu-ray by MGM, Annie Hall has never looked and sounded so good. Despite completely lacking in bonus features (I’ve read that Woody Allen’s not a fan of them) other than the original film trailer in hi-def, the blu-ray’s improvements in sound and picture quality over the prior DVD version definitely justify an upgrade.