WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: Comedian Alvy Singer recounts his fascinating, fulfilling and eventually failed relationship with apprehensive Singer Annie Hall. Though she’s anxious about herself and her talents, it’s Alvy’s anxieties that break the couple apart.
Already twice-married and twice-divorced, comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) perhaps has more reason than most to be neurotic about relationships. Still, when he encounters ditzy, fast-driving Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), he’s persuaded to give love another try. Initially, the relationship goes from strength to strength, despite her assumed intellectual inferiority and an unpromising first meeting with her parents; Alvy boosts Annie’s confidence as she tentatively embarks on a singing career. However, as the pair get to know each other better, cracks appear: Annie’s dependence on smoking grass when making love winds Alvy up, while his highly-strung nature (and insistence on watching The Sorrow and the Pity) gets on her nerves. They break up, then make up, and when they’re invited to California by schmoozy record producer Tony Lacey (Paul Simon), matters come to a head: she’s offered a contract (and more), while he becomes nauseous at the mere thought of giving an award. Yet Alvy has one last go at – finally – making the relationship work.
The facile accusation people throw at Woody Allen is that since Annie Hall, he’s made essentially the same film time and time again, using the silver screen to comically and/or dramatically replay successes and failures in his love life, with either himself or (increasingly) a proxy in the lead role. Though that’s undoubtedly partially true, here it’s a moot point: criticising this film for what came after it is no criticism at all. A painfully funny analysis of a romance between two people who love each other but ultimately aren’t compatible, Annie Hall is written with the keen observation of a true neurotic and the scalpel-sharp wit of a comic at the top of his game.
Make no mistake, the writing is about as good as it gets, with every scene containing a handful of terrific one-liners; examples are almost too numerous to pick out a single one, but I particularly like Alvy’s claim that he was thrown out of college for cheating in metaphysics – ‘I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me’. There are silly jokes, rude jokes, Jewish jokes, trenchant jokes about Allen’s life and career, about the impressive intellectualism/ridiculous pretentiousness of New York versus the brainless, drug-addled freedom/fakery of Los Angeles. More than all of these, it’s funny, insightful and honest about love: how it’s an essential part of life, but also how comprehensively it messes your life up.
Allen’s genius isn’t simply verbal, either. Annie Hall plays with the medium of film with extraordinary confidence and skill. Besides the asides to camera – including the famous summoning of Marshall McLuhan in the cinema queue – the film has beautiful moments of invention: the fractured timeframe, the subtextual subtitles, Alvy’s classmates revealing their future lives, even a snippet of animation. While some of this is simply having fun, it all adds up to a comprehensive picture of both Singer/Allen’s neuroses and the ineffable chemistry of his and Annie/Diane’s relationship; for example, the contrast drawn between Alvy and Annie struggling hysterically with lobsters, and a later scene where Alvy’s date has no interest in kitchen affairs. Plus, it’s short – less than 90 minutes on DVD. Judd Apatow, take note.
To top it all off, Annie Hall features some wonderful acting. Granted, Woody Allen is essentially playing himself, but to do that effectively is a lot harder than it sounds. Keaton, meanwhile, is deservedly Oscar-winning as the title character: funny, scatty, vulnerable and always a little sad, even though she grows immensely from her shaky beginnings to become a self-assured performer. There are impressive contributions on the margins, too: Roberts is amusing as Alvy’s amoral friend Rob, Shelley Duvall has a lovely cameo as a far-out music journalist, and Christopher Walken is mesmerising throughout his two-minute turn as Annie’s psychotic brother Duane (Jeff Goldblum also has a great single line).
All of the above comes with the assumption that you can attune yourself to Woody’s sensibilities. Such is the quality of Annie Hall that it shouldn’t be difficult, but there is evidently going to be an audience that doesn’t connect with these outdated, uptight souls and their inability just to have sex or get on with their lives, with or without each other. While this is a much more substantial film than the likes of Sleeper, it’s also a more demanding one; if jokes about therapists and Jewish families sail over your head, those ninety minutes are still going to feel long. On the whole, though, Annie Hall is a must see: if it’s a choice between comedies being too clever or too dumb, I’ll take the former every time.