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'Annie' Doesn't Live Here Anymore

The Denizens of Woody Allen's World Have Lost Their Way

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page N03

After some 40 years of watching Woody Allen films, starting with 1965's "What's New Pussycat?," it's finally time for me to acknowledge the sobering truth: I don't like his people anymore. The characters, I mean. Those inhabitants of New York. Not real New Yorkers, mind you, but his New Yorkers.

This realization crystallized with two recent viewings of "Melinda and Melinda," the 69-year-old director's latest, which was released last week and in which (once again) a clutch of Manhattanites hold dinner parties, flirt with, deceive and resent one another. I found myself thinking: Who would like these people? Who would even care about these people? And why should we engage in their pathetic, snotty, self-absorbed emotional tangles?

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Radha Mitchell in Woody Allen's latest film, "Melinda and Melinda." (Brian Hamill -- Fox Searchlight)

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In these three films, Woody Allen goes to the dark side -- successfully. And you don't feel as though you're stuck in Manhattan, either.

Stardust Memories (91 minutes, 1980). This is Allen's answer to Federico Fellini's "8 1/2," a self-portrait of the artist as a put-upon filmmaker surrounded and engulfed by sycophants, groupies and studio gnats, and also unable to love or find true love. It contains some of Allen's most assured work and pays appropriately rapturous attention to Charlotte Rampling. (Rated PG)

Crimes and Misdemeanors (107 minutes, 1989). Martin Landau is a tormented man who considers murdering his mistress when she threatens to expose his affair and financial misdeeds. Allen creates a darkly provocative world in which people consider themselves above morality. And he leavens the gloom and doom by playing a wisecracking film director forced to make a documentary about a superficial TV producer (Alan Alda). (Rated PG-13)

Interiors (93 minutes, 1978). Allen's first foray into serious drama took a lot of people by surprise. Too bad. The film is a rather fine American chamber piece, clearly influenced by Ingmar Bergman. It's a sort of feminine "King Lear," too, with Geraldine Page as the dire, dominating matriarch of three daughters (Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt and Kristin Griffith). (Rated PG)

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"Melinda and Melinda" has an interesting premise. Two playwright-friends, one (Wallace Shawn) a writer of funny plays, the other (Larry Pine) an author of tragic pieces, talk about the differences between their favored genres. They take one story -- which begins with a party-crashing guest and ends up with a lot of extramarital passion -- but tell it in two different ways, one humorous, the other laced with dread. Both feature Radha Mitchell as slightly different Melindas.

The other characters we meet, and then quickly wish we hadn't, include Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), an alcoholic, womanizing actor who is married, resentfully, to Laurel (played by Chloe Sevigny), whom Lee disparagingly calls a "Park Avenue princess" who was "born shopping." While Lee avails himself of impressionable comely acting students, Laurel finds herself attracted to a composer ("Ellis Moonsong of Harlem, USA," as this woman-hunting snake charmer grandiloquently introduces himself). She poaches Ellis, it should be said, from Melinda, who has only just started seeing him romantically. Sure, there are a couple likables in the bunch: Hobie, a chubby, slumpy out-of-work actor, made bearable because the amusing Will Ferrell plays him; and Cassie (Brooke Smith), who's a busybody but good-hearted and pregnant.

Back in the 1970s, a Woody Allen movie was the way you measured your humanity. Allen's nebbish persona represented the thinking everyman, assuming you also valued intellectualism, high culture and complicated, brilliant women. The collective high point of the Allen gestalt was "Annie Hall," Allen's ode to love in all its messy, modern dysfunctionalism, and, two years later, "Manhattan," his salute to the city of dreams, culture, love and Gershwin.

But in the past few decades, as Allen's casts became collective ensembles, as he started aping Chekhov, things changed. His movies got crowded with East Side untouchables. In a sense, Allen's Manhattan has become a cultural prison-island, where you can check in but never leave and where the collective guilt isn't criminal behavior, it's self-absorption and haute pretentiousness. The morality is relative: Extramarital affairs and hypocrisy, for instance, are punch lines and realistic quandaries rather than sins.

This climate is as rarefied and anemic as the way these New Yorkers most likely consider Appalachian life: an inbred inflexibility to outside ideas, a feeling of insular sanctimoniousness. Allen's New Yorkers may not twang tinny guitars in the mountains, but they clamor to watch Bartok string quartets with similarly reflexive reverence. There, I've said it: Woody Allen's people have become urbane rednecks.

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