Even now, the idea of going to see a Woody Allen film triggers feelings of cheerful nostalgia. I have watched Woody Allen films with some of the nicest people I have ever known. (And they know who they are.) There was, of course, a time when he could do no wrong. One classic movie was followed unfeasibly quickly by another. Even a technical exercise like “Shadows and Fog” was never less than a pleasant diversion. But then something happened, something that put him in the public eye for all the wrong reasons, with many ramifications for all of the people involved, but also, it seems, for his view of humanity as reflected in his films.
Or perhaps he has simply kept on making movies, beyond his natural cut-off point, because making movies is what he does. One has to say, however, that the tank has seemed, of late, to be pretty close to empty. Still, his stock amongst moviegoers and critics remains high; each time a half-decent Allen movie appears it is hailed as a “return to form” (c.f., in the music sphere, recent releases by the Artist Formerly Known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince). Except that none of them are, really, a return to form. There would be nothing better in this world than for Woody Allen to make another “Annie Hall”, or another “Manhattan”, or another “Hannah and Her Sisters”, or another “Crimes and Misdemeanors”. (Or, for that matter, another “Purple Rose of Cairo” or “Broadway Danny Rose”.)
(Recent distribution calamities have meant that we haven’t even been able to see all of his more recent films in Canberra, because of blinking and thereby missing them. I think the last one I saw was the one where he tunnels under a building to rob the bank next door, or something. Come to think of it, recent Woody Allen films have been much like James Lee Burke novels, a neverending run of books with similar titles and storylines, so that one blends into the other and the reader really needs to keep a record of which ones he has read in order not to accidentally come home with the same book twice. The difference being that Burke’s novels are all of a consistently high standard.)
And so, in spite of all of the foregoing misgivings, it was with some excitement that Adrienne and I headed off to Manuka, the closest Canberra has to a “happening scene” (not that close, actually), to see “Match Point”, the latest “Woody Allen is back” moment. At least the hype has led to an extended run in the cinemas. And it does have Scarlett Johansson, the sensitive thinking man’s eye candy of choice. And it is shot in London, for a nice change.
But about 90 minutes in, I leaned across to Adrienne and whispered, “I wish this would end. I don’t like it.” It’s hard to say what went wrong. It would be nice to say “Woody, I’m sorry, it’s not you, it’s me.” But I don’t actually think the problems lay with me. The basic plot outline would have read perfectly well. And there were some clever ideas. But, man, I think it turned out to be one of the most misanthropic, miserable films I have ever seen. There is nothing to like in any of the characters (not, I know, always a valid criticism, but this is Woody Allen we’re talking about), but even worse, in a two-hour, character-driven film, all we end up with are character types, or ciphers, and not terribly well resolved ones at that. The two male leads were, one assumes, supposed to be polar opposites, and yet there is really nothing between them. (This may have come from an American making misguided assumptions about “the English class system”.) And then, there is the disappointment that comes with the realisation that Allen has already told this story, only so much better and with so much greater depths of moral ambiguity and complexity, in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (probably his last truly great film - and it comes to me now, in another moment of sadness, that this may turn out to be a definitive statement).
Maybe it is telling that this film has been consistently referred to as “Woody Allen’s Match Point”, as if with this film he is serving for his career: if he wins, he can play again, but if he loses it’s curtains. He lost. I don’t know what happens next.