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‘Shadows and Fog’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 20, 1992

There's nothing particularly objectionable about Woody Allen's "Shadows and Fog." That's part of the problem. This black-and-white seriocomedy, set in the 1920s, is an amiable ramble through some of Allen's favorite themes and European film movements. It has a small army of guest stars and a fair offering of Allen jokes. But it's also flat and peakless. It doesn't conclude so much as stop. There's nothing to take home but your feet.

Once again, Allen seems to owe a lot of people casting favors. His films have become late-night celebrity lineups. Joining the director-cum-guest-host (and costar-for-life Mia Farrow) are John Malkovich, Jodie Foster, Lily Tomlin, Kathy Bates, John Cusack, Julie Kavner, Donald Pleasence, Wallace Shawn, Fred Gwynne and numerous others. Even Madonna's in there, as the wife of a circus strongman.

Allen's in the center of this moody, episodic drama as a Kafka-like nebbish in an unnamed European city. Awakened one night by vigilantes in search of a serial strangler, he's pressed into participating in "the plan." He's never told exactly what that is. Meanwhile, Farrow, a sword swallower at a traveling circus, is having a domestic spat with clown/partner Malkovich (over Madonna). She leaves in a huff. Befriended by prostitute Tomlin, she's invited to spend the night at a friendly brothel, where goodhearted ladies Foster, Bates and others like to joke about men and their strange sexual habits. When slumming student Cusack offers destitute Farrow a vast sum of money to sleep with him, she's faced with a moral dilemma.

Most of the cameos are amusing. When Allen seeks refuge from the mob, he tries to hide in the house of Kavner -- a former fiancee he once stranded at the altar. She's still a little bitter. "Get out and die!" she says. After Malkovich finds out Farrow has spent the night at a brothel, he also has strong feelings: "I hate you! I'll kill you! I wish we'd never met! Come home!"

With the help of cameraman Carlo di Palma and production designer Santo Loquasto, Allen revels in the films of Ingmar Bergman (particularly "The Seventh Seal") and Federico Fellini. He also pays tribute to the murky, expressionistic psychodramas of the German cinema in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the music of Kurt Weill.

But "Shadows" remains at best a seamless pastiche of these academic passions and predilections; it has no real identity. It's the equivalent of a modest sketch that catches your eye for a moment, then fades from memory the moment you've passed it by.

Copyright The Washington Post

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