Frontier Psychiatrist: Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) – the Friday Classic review
Lah di dah. Woody’s classic “film about nothing” taught Jerry Seinfeld everything he knows, and smuggled jokes about metaphysics into the comedy canon.
(Woody Allen, US, 1977)
Few films have permeated as deeply into popular culture as Annie Hall. It’s not just that it remains the template for the modern romantic comedy, nor that it’s the sourcebook of pretty much everything Woody Allen did after. Chiefly, its influence lies in the use of its minimalist girl-meets-boy set-up as the framework on which to hang gags about religion, intellectual bores, Hollywood and a million and one other topics. The resulting blend of traditional narrative with sketch show and stand-up formats can be directly traced to any number of spiritual heirs, including The Simpsons and, more obviously, Seinfeld.
For such a pioneering film, the formal invention on display remains dazzling. Although the structure was famously improvised due to a crisis in faith in Allen’s original concept, the modernist flashing backwards and forwards across the relationship gives the film an air of unbridled experimentation. Add to that the constant flow of structural gimmicks – split-screen, voiceovers, animation, straight-to-camera confession and anachronistic walk-ons – and the film becomes to cinema comedy what the French new wave was to drama.
It’s also the beginning of one of cinema’s great love affairs, between the director and his hometown. Amazingly, it was the second such romance to hit New York that decade, following Scorsese’s mapping out of the city’s dark side, but Allen’s snapshot of an urban intellectual scene – seemingly composed of alternate visits to cinemas and psychiatrists – is, arguably, just as fascinating. It’s interesting, too, how much Annie Hall shares with Scorsese’s big break, Mean Streets, notably the feeling of dramatised autobiography, a narrative composed less of cause-and-effect than a freeflowing succession of indelible memories – the lobsters, the cocaine, the spider in the bathroom.
Such an iconic location needs characters to match, and it was here that Woody’s cinematic alter-ego – a wisecracking pessimist, part-philosopher, part-nutcase – really took flight. The persona has survived with minimal variations for decades, of course, but here, Allen seems fresher, both funnier and more tragic. There’s little doubt why – this is the film in which “Woody” gets a foil worthy of his talents. The eponymous Annie is as charmingly fucked-up as he is, and played by an actress utterly attuned to the serio-comic shades of Allen’s writing. Apparently, just as Woody is pretty much playing himself, there’s little to separate Diane Keaton from Annie, but why bother inventing a character when you can get such a naturalistic, immersive ‘performance’ as this?