Cloud In the Silver Lining

"I never wanted movies to be an end," Woody Allen says. "I wanted them to be a means so that I could have a decent life." (By Cary Conover For The Washington Post)

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By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 26, 2006

NEW YORK

Woody Allen is saying goodbye with the same wan handshake he used for hello 30 minutes ago. "I hope I haven't depressed you," he says apologetically.

The 70-year-old writer and director has been musing about life, sex, work, death and his generally futile search for hope, and frankly, mere depression hardly seems like the right response. Flat-out terror is what is called for here.

Yes, the world according to Woody is so bereft of meaning, so godless and absurd, that the only proper response is to curl up on a sofa and howl for your mommy. Alternatively, you could try the Allen approach, which is to make a feature film every year and try, however briefly, to distract yourself from the darkness.

"You do the best you can within the concentration camp," he says, cutting straight to the life-as-Auschwitz metaphor. "It's very hard to keep your spirits up. You've got to keep selling yourself a bill of goods, and some people are better at lying to themselves than others. If you face reality too much, it kills you."

What'd you expect, a pep talk?

You thought a sit-down with Woody Allen would cheer you up? He is not the anxious, gesticulating quipster he's played in so many of his movies, a man who bundles his despair with a batch of winning one-liners, a bit of vaudeville by way of Camus. There is little shtick about the real-life Woody Allen, who says that outside of his work, he is rarely funny.

Instead, he is chatty, rueful and, though he seems vaguely uncomfortable with the setting -- an empty reception room at the Mark Hotel, where he is gabbing his way through an afternoon of interviews -- he is almost evangelically passionate about a few subjects. None more so than the chilling emptiness of life.

"It's just an awful thing," he says, shrugging a little, "and in that context you've got to find an answer to the question: Why go on?"

The answer, at least for today, is the publicity drive for "Scoop," his second movie in a row set in London. Opening Friday, it's a comedy, with Scarlett Johansson as a student journalist who falls in love with a hunky aristocrat (Hugh Jackman) who just might be a serial killer. Johannson is tipped off to the story by a famous reporter (played by "Deadwood" star Ian McShane) who returns from the dead and nudges her investigation along. Her panicky sidekick is an old-school magician, played by Allen, who pretends he's Johannson's father and helps her wheedle her way into the privileged echelons of British society.

Despite the murder plot, "Scoop" is Allen's lightest movie in a while, an about-face from the unnervingly grim "Match Point," released last year to raves and nominated for an Academy Award for original screenplay. That movie performed a nifty bit of CPR on Allen's career, which had all but flat-lined with a spate of forgettable films starting in the mid-'90s. Raise your hand if you saw "Melinda and Melinda," his last New York movie. It grossed $3.8 million domestically.

Allen's star had fallen low enough that he claims one of his recent films earned more in Paris alone than it did in the States. By the time he wrote "Match Point," he couldn't find American backers willing to cede the total creative control he has always demanded.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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