Yep, it’s that time of year – the perennial excuse for film fans the world over to ask, “Has Woody Allen finally got good again?” Meanwhile, a whole slew of others rant on about how he was never any good in the first place. Whichever side of the argument you tend to lean towards, New York’s very own paranoid whiner is back with his annual big screen excursion, and it is guaranteed to spark some debate.
There are a number of reasons to be wary of this particular outing. Allen’s track record for much of the last two decades has been almost universally derided as shaky at best, to the extent that the most common comment when it comes to his movies has become almost clichéd, and the phrase “I prefer his earlier, funnier films” crops up constantly whenever his name is mentioned. There’s also the continual, stock response of pointing out how Americans don’t “get” his films and that they always go down better in Europe – often a shorthand for “they’re intellectual and pretentious”.
Throughout his career, Allen has continued to try more experimental ideas, such as his last movie, Melinda and Melinda, where the same story was told from two perspectives – once comic, one tragic – with critics frequently divided over how successful his realisations of such ideas have been. The only real consensus is that since his double-whammy of Annie Hall and Manhattan back in the 1970s he’s never quite managed to hit those heights of genius of which he is obviously – at least sometimes – capable. It’s the classic case of the vast promise of an early career not having been lived up to in the eyes of the world; much like with that other cinematic genius, Orson Welles.
The pressure of continually having everyone wanting you to live up to such high standards has not, however, shown any signs of having impacted on Allen’s work. He has resolutely refused to sell out, and even continued to use his reputation for being an underachieving genius to his advantage, constantly attracting the very hottest of acting talent to come and work for him for little or no money despite his notoriously idiosyncratic working practices in the hope of getting lucky and starring in the film the critics decide is the long hoped-for return to his now near-legendary past form.
For this outing – and, indeed, his next, due out later this year – Allen has brought in that very hottest of bright young things, Scarlett Johansson, as the sensually alluring American in London who tempts young Englishman Jonathan Rhys Meyers away from his wealthy wife. A case of true love battling against unfortunate circumstances? A semi-autobiographical reworking of Allen’s own much-publicised marital troubles and infidelities? Nothing is so simple.
While this is unlikely to join anyone’s list of favourite Allen films – it seems a touch too serious and emotional for that, with little of his trademark inventiveness – this is nonetheless likely to spark many a claim that he has returned to form. It is, however, one of the least Allen-like films he has made for a while, and a decidedly worthy addition to his impressive back catalogue. The real clincher will be his next outing – again set in London, but this time a comedy. For now, this intriguing tale of love and infidelity shows that the man’s still got it, even after all these years.