Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" has the makings of a fresh, cheering romantic comedy in the same respect that the musical "Annie" had the makings of a fresh, cheering musical. If the cheers heard so far seem excessive, it's because neither show has develop beyond a likable impulse into a richly elaborated and satisfying entertainment.
One may feel slightly churish registering disappointment at a picture as presentable and easy to take as "Annie Hall," but after slapstick farces as exuberant and hilarious as "Sleeper" and "Love and Death," it comes as a soft, fuzzy, mildly diverting letdown.
"Annie Hall," which opens today at the Jenifer 2 and Roth's Tysons Corner 4 & 5, is a superficial chronicle of a would-be bittersweet love affair between a comedian named Alvy singer, played by Allen, and an aspiring actress-singer named Annie Hall, played by Diane Keaton. It may prove an exploratory faltering step in a downright undesirable direction for Woody Allen: away from uninhibited gratuitous comedy itself. We seem to be faced with the paradox of Allen valuing his comic talents less as he grows more skillful as a comic star and filmmaker.
Allen has characterized his new picture as a "mild turning point," although it actually turns back to the blandly whimsical tone of his first feature. "Take the Money and Run," instead of building on the peppery, argumentative romantic comedy relationship he and Keaton appeared to be evolving in "Sleeper" and "Love and Death." If "Annie Hall" is successful, Allen will probably act on what appears to be an irresistible impulse to make a serious, no-laughs-allowed psychological drama, with a cast excluding himself, in the brooding tradition of his favorite director, Ingmar Bergman.
Allen has certainly earned the right to try to extend and even overreach himself, and he's conscious of the pitfalls awaiting comedians who turn their backs on comedy. In "Annie Hall" one may feel him edging away. While there are funny lines and situations, they tend to be widely, frugally scattered. Allen had not attempted to duplicate the consistency and prodigality of his funniest movies, which fulfil what he once described as a comedian's "tacit contract . . . to pull out all the stops and make you laugh."
Personally, I feel the change in Allen's approach as a deprivation, both emotionally and stylistically. However, for the time being there's nothing to be done about it, except to hope for the best and see where his artistic inclinations lead. Allen perceives "Annie Hall" as a deeper, finer grade of comedy, since it relies more on characterization and sentiment than gratuitous gags and aims to be affecting rather than uproarious.
Woody Allen's major limitation remains the solipsistic turn of mind that makes it difficult for him to formulate jokes in any voice but his own. Allen can't seem to accommodate more than a few comedic instruments: himself, Diane Keaton, Louise Lasser, an occasional bit player. That's about it. Despite the presence of such performers as Colleen Dewhurst, Paul Simon, Tony Roberts, Christopher Walker, Shelley Duvall, Carol Kane, Janet Margolin and, in a very brief but effective telephone bit, the fabulous young Jeff Goldblum, who is about to emerge as a star in "Between the Lines." Allen has not provided sustained opportunities to anyone except Keaton and himself. Even their material is wafter-thin, virtually requiring us to fill out the characters of Alvy and Annie with the stars' own identities and relationship.
Allen and Keaton, whose real last name is Hall, began a romance when they were appearing on Broadway in "Play It Again, Sam." The romance broke up after two years, but it was the beginning of an enduring friendship and productive artistic collaboration.
Ostensibly, "Annie Hall" is a fictionalized account of that affair, a story of how acquaintances evolve into lovers and then friends. A perfectly agreeable, salutary premise. The problem is that Allen never shoulders the obligation of dramatizing the affair. Technically, "Play It Again, Sam" was a more accomplished romantic comedy, although in those days Allen was underrating himself by playing a romantic loser even when the audience might have preferred to see him win.
In a less obvious and offensive way Allen in "Annie Hall" seems to have indulged the same streak of vanity that led Barbra Streisand and Jeanne Moreau astray in "A Star is Born" and "Lumiere," respectively. Allen too is not so much creating and sustaining characters as complacently trading on his reputation and real-life associations. Alvy and Annie are interesting only insofar as they can be confused with Allen and Keaton.
Although Allen doesn't ask for tribute in the outrageous manner of Streisand and Moreau, he demonstrates condescending tendencies of his own that are equally disturbing. There are too many scenes in "Annie Hall" in which Woody Allen acts peeved at suffering fools, usually fools who are stand-ins for the boobish segment of the public. He's accosted outside a theater. He seethes while a pretentious type standing in line behind him pontificates about Fellini. He grimaces at the prattle of a rock-music groupie played by Shelley Duvall. These incidents aren't calculated to illustrate an intolerant streak in Alvy that might eventually alienate Annie. They seem to be a way of simply airing pet peeves, and as such they partake of the crankiness one often finds in Clint Eastwood movies.
Alvy's peremtory behavior isn't typical of Allen himself, who is solitary and intellectual but knows how to finesse annoying social situations.
Allen may be unwise to make a habit of playing people in his own profession, since it narrows his range of identification. The witty, sassy remarks of a Woody Allen seem more satisfying when they appear to spring spontaneously from characters who are unprofessional comedians.
I doubt if Allen realizes how he has wasted the supporting cast. It seems absurdly neglected to recruit people like Colleen Dewhurst or Paul Simon, who are probably fans, and then give them nothing to work with. The neglect is surely unintentional, but it's also inexcusable.
The bit players, like Goldblum or Russell Horton, who plays the annoying Fellini "expert," make more of an impression than the players accorded star billing with Allen and Keaton. Presumably, their reputations have yet to inhibit Allen's powers of invention. The other young actressess - Margolin, Kane and Duvall - are used rather shaabbily as the expendable girls in Alvy's life before he meets Annie. Duvall gets a particularly ungallant brushoff, becoming the butt of the crudest single joke in the film.
Although the title itself seems like an example of false modesty - the movie is not really about a girl named Annie Hall - it's a clue to Allen's abiding affeaction for Keaton, whom he tries to set off to fresh advantage. His nicest idea is to let her sing. The experience is still too novel to be conclusive, but it's a pleasant beginning; she has an oddly seductive singing voice that tends to surround and encompass the lyrics. Keaton's acting is not so pleasing, but then about all she's asked to do is look and talk flustered.
Although her wardrobe seems to consist almost exclusively of baggy pants, Allen hasn't provided her with any baggy-pants humor.
The film was shot by Gordon Willis, the exceptional cinematographer best known for "The Godfather." The interiors reflect Willis' distinctive taste for and facility with chiaroscuro lighting, and the visual scheme tends to recall Diane Keaton opposite Al Pachino more often than Keaton opposite Allen. Impressive as this strong, somber look is, I'm not convinced it's an enhancement to conventional romantic comedy. In all likelihood Allen has simply found his Sven Nykvist, with whom he can prep for the eventual assault on Mt. Bergman.
One can imagine this Bergman fixation becoming the despair of Woody Allen fans. Bergman's methods of confronting real despair or the eternal mysteries have always seemed more evasive and self-protective than illuminating, a cinematically stylized form of whistling in the dark.
If you're inclined to let the msyteries take care of themselves in their own sweet time, it's difficult to reconcile the Woody Allen who can kid the pants off Bergman with the one who craves to emulate him.