Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.
Cultural Vegetable of the Week: Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
Nutritional Value: Watching fake love implode like a cigar in Woody Allen’s face
This film is funny. Let’s get that out of the way. Yes, it’s a dramedy that effectively ended the “early funny ones” period of Woody Allen’s career, so the laughs don’t come as frequently or as easily as they do with its predecessor, Love and Death. But the comedic variety is still there: wordplay, borscht belt parodies, high culture punch lines, physical gags, throwaway one-liners, and deftly executed satire.
And Annie, the woman who gives the movie her name, laughs as much as she cries. We can do the same. In the final conversation that Alvy (Allen) has with Annie (Diane Keaton), we just hear Alvy’s voiceover as the camera captures the pair in a restaurant, with a window separating us from them. We can’t hear what they’re saying, but Annie is beside herself with laughter, her mouth locked in an almost permanent giddy paroxysm. She loves to laugh; it’s why I like her. Alvy can make Annie laugh; that’s why she likes him.
This movie offers a romanticized archetype of “smart love.” I remember an AFI special where David Alan Grier (!) remarked that he just knew these characters were made for each other. The film says otherwise. In a remarkably streamlined ninety minutes, there’s not much proof that this pair had a chance. By the end of the film, they don’t seem so much like a couple as conflicting character types. Question: will the older nebbish who can’t be happy finally find happiness with the young ingénue who boasts Midwest roots and an incredible openness to life? Answer: of course not.
When Alvy admits he’s been married and divorced twice, Annie doesn’t bat an eyelash. Granted, she just had a fling with the Ted-Nugent-lookalike contest winner in her acting class. Alvy doesn’t know what he wants, except for the fact that he rarely wants women who want him. Alvy forces Annie to figure out that she doesn’t want a guy like Alvy, even as she begins to form shades of her own personality by rejecting Alvy’s anal retentiveness, sexual insecurity, and refusal to try anything new. Alvy fancies himself an avatar of New York City, a tower of culture and taste that is also admittedly an island unto itself. But that’s to do a disservice to New York. He’s the quaint little theater in New York that keeps running the four hour documentary Sorrow and the Pity. That’s certainly a piece of New York life, but it’s not exactly the MOMA.
Alvy is writing a play as the film ends, and we get to see its final scene, which as it turns out is almost a word for word transcription of Alvy and Annie’s final confrontation on the sunset strip. I’ll come out and say it. It’s terrible. Alvy’s a bad playwright, and the acting is horrendous. Aptly, the Alvy character is a much better looking version of Allen while Annie’s stand-in is a pale simulacrum of Diane Keaton. The line reads are forced and the ending hokey. Alvy turns to the camera and says that we try to get things to turn out well in art to make up for life’s problems. We play the crazy game of “Relationship” because it occasionally gives us fabulous door prizes even though we never seem to win the jackpot.
But this send up of the film’s main plot hits a little too close to home. When I see the staged quality of Alvy and Annie’s fight moved to a theater, I start thinking that the scene that birthed it was equally staged. The line reads are better. But it’s still artificial. Alvy rejects the pseudo-intellectuals of his second wife, dismissing them as purveyors of Dysentery — the high-brow mags Dissent and Commentary have merged! — while he watches Knicks games in the backroom. But then he’s the guy who doesn’t think Annie is smart enough, telling her that she needs to take college courses at Columbia.
The film wants its nostalgia — it closes with the song “Feels Like Old Times” — but were the good times all that good? Alvy admits he has a hyperactive imagination and tends to exaggerate things. I get the feeling that remembering what was supposedly great is far more fun that actually experiencing said greatness. The film’s version of romance ignores real love. Instead, it proclaims, “Hurry up and bring on the memories!”