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Posts Tagged ‘Diane Keaton’

Where there is a big loud blockbuster, occupying the sides of every bus for miles around, intent on owning the nation’s cinemas for a weekend, there’s always the chance for counter-programming, too, and one could surely expect the new Transformers (described by Bradshaw in The Guardian the other day as ‘a machine for turning your brain into soup’) to be countered by something a little more mellow, thoughtful, and humane. What has actually emerged to hoover up the money of cinemagoers not keen to spend two hours recreating the experience of sitting in a tumble drier being pushed down a hill by an angry mob is Joel Hopkins’ Hampstead, a golden-years romantic-comedy-drama starring Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson. I get the impression expectations for this film are quite high, for it has won the coveted main screen at Oxford city centre’s nicer cinema, which I don’t feel I get to sit in nearly often enough.

In this movie, which (needless to say, I hope) is set in the London borough of Hampstead, Diane Keaton plays Emily, a woman whose husband has died fairly recently, leaving her with some financial concerns. (She still lives in an enormous apartment block with its own concierge, of course, like most people in London.) Her friends and family are all urging her to move on with her life, and her accountant keeps macking on her in a way which I’m guessing is meant to be pathetic-funny but actually just comes across as rather repulsive. Anyway, Emily’s life changes when she bumps into Donald (Gleason), a sort of human womble living rough in a secluded part of Hampstead Heath, in a shack he built himself many years earlier. The area is due to be redeveloped and Donald is about to be evicted, and as Emily finds herself increasingly drawn to him, she resolves to help him fight to keep his home. But can people from two such different worlds truly find happiness together? Especially when it turns out that Emily’s closest friends are deeply involved in the redevelopment project which looks set to evict Donald from the home he loves…

Look, Diane Keaton was in Annie Hall and Sleeper and The Godfather, there’s no excuse for not liking her as an actress. Brendan Gleeson was in In Bruges and Calvary and The Guard, in addition to all those supporting parts in blockbusters, so the same applies to him. I think I would give any film starring Brendan Gleeson a chance, in fact. Or so I kept reminding myself while I was watching Hampstead and trying to stop myself jumping from the cinema balcony in an attempt to escape from the movie.

What is it about this film which makes it quite so exceptionable? Is it the soft-focus depiction of homelessness in modern London? The disparity between the living standards and housing of the wealthy and the poor in the city’s more prosperous parts has become a bit of an issue in the last couple of weeks, as you may have noticed on the news. Perhaps it is partly to blame. Is it the crushing obviousness of pretty much every line of the script and the direction-of-travel of the movie? I think we are getting a bit closer, there, to be honest. Emily needs to learn the life lesson that She Has Potential As A Human Being (and also that all her so-called friends are grotesque shallow comic harpies). Donald has to learn the life lesson that Being A Reclusive Curmudgeonly Hermit is not good and you must Connect With People And Find Love. The manner in which these two character arcs unfold and interact contains fewer surprises than a dot-to-dot book assembled by someone unable to count above three. Overall, such is the sense of dramatic tension and potential for excitement in this movie that you can cut the atmosphere with a rolling pin.

You can see what the makers of this film had in mind when they were putting it together – one of those romcoms set in an absurdly photogenic London with an imported American star and a local leading man, with the formula modulated somewhat to appeal to older audiences in the same way that (for example) Man Up was tweaked to seem slightly more edgy. However, what they’ve ended up with in this case feels rather like a lobotomised mash-up of The Lady in the Van and an early draft of Notting Hill before Richard Curtis had put any of the jokes in. It is of course physically impossible for performers of the stature of Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson to be completely bad for 104 minutes, and each of them manages to bring moments of power and life to the very thin characters they are obliged to play here. Employing Brendan Gleeson, in particular, in a film quite as lightweight and disposable as this one is a bit like buying an armoured car to do the school run in. But there are some talented people in the supporting cast as well, and they make virtually no impression (at least, not in a good way).

Is it even worth mentioning that this movie is supposedly based on a true story? ‘Inspired by the life of Harry Hallowes,’ squeak the closing credits – useful words, ‘inspired by’, for they give you so much latitude to invent new characters, change the ending, insert whatever Moral Premise you believe will play best with your target demographic – the film really does feel exactly that calculated, and as a result whatever emotions it manages to generate feel cold and glutinous – it’s a bit like being swamped by a wave of chilled treacle.

In the end I suspect the main problem with Hampstead is that it’s a smug film that still manages to feel hollow and manipulative, as well as being a drama without any surprises, a comedy with barely any decent jokes, and a romance with no sense of passion or even much emotion to it. I am sorely tempted to recommend you go to see Transformers 5 instead. This film will eat your soul.

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I see from the (conspiracy of failing liberal – it says here) media that many people are concerned about the possibility of prominent American figures being unduly swayed by shadowy forces emanating from somewhere east of Europe. I don’t quite see what all the fuss is about, for this sort of thing has surely been going on for decades now. I offer as Exhibit A the 1975 movie Love and Death, in which Woody Allen’s brainspace has clearly been hacked by a number of well-known Russians.

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This even extends to abandoning his usual font and jazz-influenced score in favour of a different style of lettering and a soundtrack almost entirely drawn from the works of Sergei Prokoviev. Once the shock of this subsides we find ourselves in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. The noted soldier, poet, and abject coward Boris Grushenko (Allen) is awaiting execution, and passes the time by narrating the story of his life. It is a stirring tale of war, self-discovery, and all the other stuff you usually find in this sort of film. Boris’s unrequited love for his cousin Sonia endures despite her marriage to an elderly herring merchant, and the two of them are eventually married. However, with the French on the march, Sonia proposes the two of them engage in a daring exploit to save Russia…

Hmm. The thing about trying to write a synopsis of Love and Death is that simply describing the events of the story really doesn’t communicate the tone of the movie. The unwitting modern viewer, aware of Allen’s latter-day reputation as a cerebral misanthropist, might even be lulled into suspecting the director was genuinely attempting a pastiche of or homage to Tolstoy, Pasternak, Eisenstein, and various other serious artists.

Of course not. This is one of the Early, Funny Woody Allen movies, dating from the period when he was more likely to be parodying Ingmar Bergman than trying to imitate him. This isn’t quite the same kind of movie as his previous film, Sleeper, which is essentially a slapstick comedy – instead, it’s rather more like one of the Monty Python movies in that many of the jokes derive from inserting Allen’s modern sensibility into a period setting. Inevitably, this takes the form of an unstoppable stream of snappy one-liners – ‘Shall we say pistols at dawn?’ asks someone, challenging Boris to a duel. ‘Well, we can say it. I don’t what it means,’ comes the response. ‘You’re a coward!’/’Yes, but I’m a militant coward’, ‘Are you suggesting passive resistance?’/’No, I’m suggesting active fleeing’ – and many, many more.

As well as all this, though, there’s a running gag where virtually any conversation has a tendency to turn into a disquisition on moral philosophy, which arguably is an attempt at a genuine parody of Russian literature. However, the thing about dialogue like ‘judgement of any system or a priori relation of phenomena exists in any rational or metaphysical or at least epistemological contradiction to an abstract and empirical concept such as being or to be or to occur in the thing itself or of the thing itself’ (‘Yes, I’ve said that many times,’ is Allen’s response) is that for it to sound convincing, the writer has to know what he’s talking about – it’s a bit like Les Dawson’s bad piano playing, you have to know your stuff before you can start taking liberties with it. In the same way, there’s a scene in which Boris and his father converse at some length and the dialogue consists almost entirely of references to the works of Dostoyevsky. Sequences incorporate references to classic films like Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky, and The Seventh Seal. Much of what’s on screen is very silly and broad (and there are still a few of those slightly off-colour jokes which occasionally pop up in early Allen movies and are especially uncomfortable these days), but there’s also an assumption that this movie is being watched by an intelligent, educated audience – so, in some ways, very much like a Monty Python movie.

It’s an interesting movie – not, if you ask me, the funniest of the Early, Funnies but still an entertaining watch anyway. Allen’s next film was Annie Hall, which marked a real milestone in his development as a film-maker – a much more sophisticated and emotionally intelligent movie. There’s not much sign of that here, although Diane Keaton does get more scenes without Allen and more chance to develop a genuine character, and Allen’s willingness to display his erudition so openly does perhaps suggest someone becoming interested in moving beyond simply being a straightforward gag-merchant. Perhaps this is more of a transitional film than it first appears. If nothing else, it suggests that Russian influence on a famous American can also produce rather farcical results – but on the other hand I think most of us have already figured that out for ourselves…

 

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When I write about a film, one of the things at the back of my mind is that I’m only supposed to be writing about the film, not the situation in which I saw it, my opinion in general of the genre or people involved, or anything I might know about the circumstances in which the film was made. Sometimes this is very easy, but sometimes…

Woody Allen’s 1993 movie Manhattan Murder Mystery doesn’t so much sit easily in the director’s comfort zone as occupy it, close the borders, erect fortifications and refuse to countenance any attempts to persuade it to move. (Well, perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but we’ll come to that.) There may be good real-world reasons for this, but the effect is still a little disconcerting.

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It opens with titles in the familiar Allen font and a classic standard, leading to a series of beautiful panoramas of New York City by night. We then meet a middle-aged couple returning home after a night out – they are played by Allen himself and Diane Keaton, and while the characters are named Larry and Carol Lipton, they could just as easily be slightly older versions of Alvy and Annie from Annie Hall, or Isaac and Mary from Manhattan, so familiar are their personalities and the dynamic of their relationship. Their grown-up son has left home and one gets a sense they are still coming to terms with how this is impacting their marriage.

In short, this is a barrage of familiar Allen characters, themes, locations and images, all following on one another so closely that it’s quite disconcerting – almost as if the director is frenetically pastiching himself. The film continues in a very similar vein, on one level at least – Carol worries that their marriage has grown too stale and comfortable, and is looking for a new adventure. Will this be opening a restaurant, or perhaps indulging in a mild fling with their friend Ted (Alan Alda)? (Allen, typically, is equally unhappy about both ideas.) Larry, on the other hand, finds temptation of a sort in poker-playing work acquaintance Marcia (Anjelica Huston). All this unfolds through the usual scenes of affluent Manhattanites hanging out in restaurants, bars, and each others’ apartments, with a running soundtrack of finely-honed Allen one-liners (complaining after a trip to the opera – ‘I can’t listen to that much Wagner, I start getting the urge to conquer Poland’ – and many more).

There is, of course, slightly more to the film than this, as the title Manhattan Murder Mystery might suggest. The only thing that really makes this film distinctive within the Allen canon (other than, perhaps, the use of a slightly annoying roving handheld camera in a number of scenes) is the way in which it blends Allen’s usual quasi-naturalistic comedy-drama with a full-on genre storyline – in this case, an amateur (and in Allen’s case, highly amateurish) investigation of the possible murder of one of Allen and Keaton’s elderly neighbours.

You may be thinking that these two elements would never sit comfortably together in the same film – and Allen seems to have been thinking the same thing, because the murder mystery plotline feels almost intentionally underpowered and soft-edged – two people get killed and someone else gets kidnapped, but it never feels completely serious and certainly never grips or thrills (although the climax, a gunfight in a hall of mirrors, gives Allen the opportunity for the priceless ‘We need to call the police!’ – ‘Yes, and a glazier!’). It is almost as if Allen was aware that the rest of the film is really doing nothing new at all and inserted the murder plotline in an attempt to give the film the appearance of novelty (although I understand this script started life many years earlier, as the intended follow-up to Love and Death, its place eventually being taken by Annie Hall).

On this occasion, can one really begrudge Allen the chance to do something comfortable and familiar? This is the film which immediately followed his much-publicised and hugely acrimonious split with Mia Farrow – Farrow was originally intended to play the Keaton part – and bearing this in mind it’s sort of understandable he was reluctant to push the boat out too far creatively. That said, I’m not sure that serious personal problems are really an excuse for mediocre film-making, and even less sure that being a film-maker would be a good enough excuse for some of the things Farrow publicly accused Allen of at the time.

Is this an actively bad film? Arguably not: by this point Allen could do affluent Manhattanite comedy-drama in his sleep, and while the genre element is hardly sparkling stuff, it hangs together and is actually grafted on to the rest of the story reasonably skillfully. But it’s a very ordinary one, nevertheless – I originally saw it many years ago, but other than the odd one liner had no memory whatsoever of what it was actually about. I doubt this second viewing will change that much, which is a rarity as far as Woody Allen movies go. It’s not without its charms and points of interest, but it shares all of these with other, considerably more accomplished movies. Probably for Allen completists and nostalgists only.

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Normal service appears to have been resumed at the premises of the company that sends me my rented DVDs: still no sign of Tiptoes, but another Woody Allen movie turned up (the third in the space of two months, for anyone keeping score). Not that I’m complaining; I wouldn’t be signing up to watch these movies if I didn’t like Allen a lot, I just didn’t expect to get them all in a lump (as it were).

This time around the movie they sent was Manhattan, from 1979, one of Allen’s most successful and acclaimed films. The ironic thing about this is that Allen apparently hated the movie when he finished editing it together – one senses that he has a difficult relationship with most of his old work, come to that – and went to the studio, trying to persuade them to let him junk it and make another movie for free to replace it.

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It would interesting to visit the parallel dimension where Manhattan was indeed junked and Woody Allen got to make that mysterious other film instead, because it seems to me that Manhattan is one of the two or three absolutely key films in Allen’s career. Together with Annie Hall, it marks the point of transition between the unrepentantly broad comedy of the Early, Funny films and the more ambitious and harder to categorise work he spent most of the 1980s making. Or, to put it another way, in terms of all those multi-stranded comedy-dramas about the difficult personal lives and relationships of affluent metropolitan types, Manhattan is the Ur-text, recognisably the original of the species.

What makes it somewhat distinctive in narrative terms is that it is focussed on one character, rather than bobbing back and forth between several. Allen plays Isaac, a somewhat-harassed TV comedy writer with a bevy of ex-wives to support and a much younger girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway). She is very much in love with him; he seems guarded and diffident. When he meets a close friend’s mistress (Diane Keaton) there is an obvious chemistry between them, and their relationship slowly develops. He quits his job and attempts to write a novel. Meanwhile one of his ex-wives (Meryl Streep) is writing a warts-and-all account of their failed relationship and divorce, much to his horror.

And so on, and so on, essentially. It seems to me Woody Allen’s ability to pull together a satisfying narrative out of events which are basically the stuff of potboilers and soap operas is much underrated. If I’m honest, Manhattan struggles a bit in the ending department, as it’s a little unclear what the director is trying to say and what response he is looking to evoke from the audience, but on the whole this is a very successful and engaging film, driven along by a great performance from Allen himself and a script bristling with the one-liners you’d expect. That said, the drama has a harder edge to it than you might expect – this genuinely is a comedy-drama, arguably Allen’s first.

Of course, this being a Woody Allen movie where the director stars as a thinly disguised analogue of himself, the temptation to scour it for clues about his real life relationships and attitudes is almost irresistible. Diane Keaton plays a harder, less obviously troubled character than Annie Hall, but there are still obvious parallels between the two. The relationship between Allen and Hemingway was allegedly based on one he had with Stacey Nelkin. The golden thread of most of the early Allen movies – the apparently unironic presentation of Allen as a neurotic nebbish, who nevertheless possesses uncanny ladykilling powers and astonishing sexual prowess – continues, of course. To be honest, given how Allen’s private life eventually turned out, the fact that he’s quite happy to depict himself here engaging in an affair with a besotted 17-year-old (Allen himself was 43 when the movie came out) is, er, fascinating.

If the story takes place firmly in Allen territory, the look of Manhattan is rather different. The black and white cinematography is gorgeous, and New York looks lovely throughout. Usually I think that doing a movie in black and white just to give it a bit of art-house gravitas is a sure-fire sign that pretentiousness is afoot, but Manhattan looks so beautiful that I’ll cut it some slack. It also gives the film some of the ‘classic’ quality which I suspect Allen was aiming for when he took this option.

With a body of work as large and varied as Woody Allen’s, you’re on slippery ground if you even start talking in terms of his best film. Even so, I don’t think Manhattan is quite there, for all that it’s better than all the variations on the same theme that Allen has been cranking out on-and-off ever since. It’s intelligently written, solidly performed, and terrifically well-filmed – and yet for me it doesn’t have quite the heart or warmth of some of his other movies. Still a class act, though.

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Looking back at the awards shows of previous years can be an odd experience sometimes – films which are regarded as classics today barely feature, while mocked and derided movies turn out to have done much better than you could have imagined. Perhaps oddest of all are the critical darlings which have slipped out of the bounds of popular memory entirely.

I was glancing over the Oscars handed out for 1977’s crop of movies and all these things went through my head – one of the most-nominated films, winning a raft of prestigious awards, is something called Julia, which I’ve never heard of. John Travolta is a Best Actor nominee for Saturday Night Fever. The biggest winner overall, if not in the major categories, is Star Wars (although – and most people would laugh at the notion now – it was in the frame for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay, too).

I mention all this because I recently re-watched Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which was one of the real winners that year – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and so on. I belong to one of those DVD-rental schemes where they send me three or four discs a month from a list I’ve registered with the company. I have very little control over what actually gets sent – there’s supposedly a ‘high priority’ flag, but I added it to King Kong Lives for about three months and nothing happened – so sometimes there is the odd surprise, such as a movie I added without really thinking about it turning up eight months later. I have to confess that the prospect of actually watching Annie Hall again didn’t really enthuse me.

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And then I sat down to watch it and found it utterly winning, much funnier and more affecting than I remembered. Allen plays Alvy Singer, a successful comedian, who across the course of the film recounts the details of his relationship with the eponymous character (Diane Keaton). There isn’t a great deal more to it than that – they meet, they get to know each other, he supports her in her career as a singer, they have various issues, separations and comings-together, they grow apart and finally split up for good.

Of course, it’s not the story but how you tell it, and much of the film’s charm and sparkle comes from how it is structured and how it approaches the material. Most of the film is a series of snapshots, initially out of sequence, rather than what you might call a fully-connected narrative. A defining feature of the film is the way in which it plays games with the language and grammar of film, opening a scene very naturalistically before suddenly going off at a fantastical tangent – such as in the famous moment where Allen starts talking to the camera during a squabble with someone in a cinema ticket queue, and wheels on Marshall McLuhan to settle their argument. The wit and invention of the direction are sustained and impressive.

Then again, this being a Woody Allen film, wit is part of what you expect. For a film called Annie Hall, it isn’t really about Keaton’s character, but Allen himself – he’s the first person on screen, he’s in virtually every scene, and the narration is his. And Allen’s character and Allen himself seem almost indistinguishable – they’re both New Yorkers, neurotic comedians, and so on. Given this, it’s irresistible to wonder how much of this film is the story of Alvy and Annie, and how much that of Allen and Keaton themselves.

Certainly this film is suffused with a level of emotional maturity and genuine feeling almost wholly absent from any of Woody Allen’s previous movies. This is obviously a major step in Allen’s development as a film-maker, possibly the defining step – but at the same time the film is still much of a piece with his earlier work. Keaton and Tony Roberts both appeared in several previous films, while the sense of humour is virtually seamless. This film may be Allen at his most quotable – ‘Don’t knock masturbation, it’s sex with someone I love,’ ‘I cheated in my metaphysics exam – I looked into the soul of the boy next to me’, and many more. But there is subtler, character comedy too – Christopher Walken (credited as ‘Wlaken’ in the credits) pops up for a priceless cameo as Keaton’s flakey brother – and Allen’s ruthless lampooning of the vacuity of West Coast life is also very funny (‘I forgot my mantra,’ reveals Jeff Goldblum in his one-line cameo).

As funny as Annie Hall is, it’s the film’s wistful tenderness and sense of regret that really makes it memorable and satisfying. These days, every time Allen releases a movie which is more than half-decent, it has become customary to hail it as a return to form. The only problem with Annie Hall is that it shows just how brilliant a film-maker Allen can be when he really is on form, and nothing he’s done in recent years comes close to the quality of this movie.

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As regular masochists readers will know, last week I enjoyed a DIY big-screen double bill of a Woody Allen documentary and a classic zombie movie. I was talking about this with a friend – yes, I do have a few left, believe it or not – and I must not have expressed myself with my usual pristine clarity, as she seemed to get a bit confused. ‘I can’t imagine that,’ she said. ‘Although for all I know Woody Allen is the king of the zombie movie.’ A cinematic zombopocalypse in the Allen style is certainly a mouthwatering prospect, but does not, as far as I know, appear on the great man’s slate of planned projects.

Nevertheless, this conversation, confused and meandering though it was (as usual), did lead me to realise that a full-on horror movie is just about the only genre Woody Allen has not tackled in the course of his career. (Oh, hang on: he hasn’t done a Western either.) He’s best known for his metropolitan comedy-dramas, of course, but looking down the list there are also thrillers, dramas, mockumentaries, costume dramas, and a musical (although, in the name of all that’s decent, spare yourself and don’t watch Everyone Says I Love You, the film in question: ’tis bilge). And, of course, a Hugo and Nebula award-winning SF movie. This movie, Sleeper, was my own personal initiation into the Allen canon, at the tender age of 12, and seeing the material on it in Robert Weide’s documentary made me realise I really wanted to watch it again. So I did.

Sleeper was released in 1973 and as such is one of Allen’s Early, Funny films. Despite this there’s very little in the plot or backstory that suggests that a laugh riot is impending. By the mid 2170s, America has become a totalitarian state under the control of a despotic regime headed by a nameless Leader. As is traditional, rebel elements have come together and are planning to strike at the administration. But to do so they need an agent who does not exist on the vast database recording details about every citizen, and so they decide to use a newcomer to the 22nd century. They have discovered a cryogenic suspension capsule from 1973, and the plan is that the person within will be the ideal operative to help bring down the Leader’s tyranny.

Unfortunately, the plan hits a bit of a snag when the person in the capsule turns out to be Miles Monroe (Allen), a jazz clarinetist turned health food restauranteur from Greenwich Village, who only ended up being frozen when an operation on his peptic ulcer went wrong. Miles is unenthusiastic about the role planned out for him, but finds he has little choice when the rebel hideout is raided by security forces and he has to go on the run. Disguising himself as a domestic android, he takes refuge in the home of Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton), a socialite and terrible poet. When Luna discovers his identity, will she help him in his quest? And what is the terrible secret of the Leader’s Aries Project? (Don’t Write In Dept.: yes, I know on screen it’s written as the Aires Project. But I’m prepared to bet this is a typo.)

As you can see, the main throughline of the plot could quite easily work as the basis for a piece of dystopian SF of the kind that was very popular in the early Seventies – and in fact this is a tradition into which Sleeper could comfortably fit, albeit as the joker in the pack. Certainly movies like THX-1138 and A Clockwork Orange have moments of startling visual and thematic similarity (there’s a conscious nod to 2001 at one point, too, as an uncredited Douglas Rain reprises his role as the voice of a computer). The apparatus of the authoritarian government is handled quite seriously for most of the movie – sympathetic characters have their frontal lobes fried and get brainwashed – and this is, apparently, the first SF movie to deal with cloning as a major plot point (although in a somewhat idiosyncratic fashion). That Sleeper stands up as SF as well as it does (which is to say, at least as well as most ‘straight’ movies, even forty years ago) may well be due to an uncredited spot of script consultancy by Isaac Asimov.

However coherent and serious Sleeper‘s plot may sound when written down on paper, even for an Early, Funny Woody Allen film this is a comedy of the broadest kind. To a modern audience, some moderately incorrect gags about gay androids and robotic Jewish tailors may come as a bit of a surprise, and some of the more scattergun satire doesn’t quite work. Mainly, though, this being an Allen script (collaborating with Marshall Brickman for the first time), there is a pretty much unceasing flow of smart one-liners – ‘I’m not the heroic type, I used to get beaten up by Quakers,’ ‘Sex and death both come once in a lifetime, but at least after death you’re not nauseous,’ and (when asked how it felt to be dead for 200 years), ‘It’s like spending a weekend in Beverley Hills.’ And so on, and so on. This is really what you expect from a Woody Allen movie (an Early, Funny one at least).

What you don’t expect is a succession of elaborate slapstick routines. Apparently Allen’s original plan was to make the entire movie without dialogue – always looking for a new challenge, even this early in his career! – but relented on this when he realised that one-liners were one of his strengths. But elements of this original idea persist – the long sequence with him as the robot butler barely gives him any lines, and there are numerous chases and similar routines in which the only real soundtrack is a bouncy jazz orchestra. The soundtrack is one of the film’s most distinctive features, even if it does seem very eccentric in places – one sequence involving Allen encountering some genetically-modified food, which includes a painfully knowing slipping-on-a-banana-skin gag, is accompanied by what sounds like ‘Rock Around The Clock’ arranged for the tuba.

Now I always thought that the slapstick silent comedy was meant as a homage to the black and white movies of Hal Roach and people like that, but the general consensus (which has even made it onto Wikipedia) is that Woody Allen is paying tribute to and expressing a deep admiration for Benny Hill. Really? I mean, really? I mean, both men are comedy titans, and I’ll happily wax eloquent in their praise, but Woody Allen being a huge Benny Hill fan? I can’t get my head around that. The two of them hardly feel like they’re on the same kind of wavelength in any way. But there you go, everyone seems to be taking it as read, and there is a certain stylistic similarity going on in Sleeper.

It may also explain some of the negative reviews floating around, basically along the lines of ‘I know it’s considered a masterpiece, but all I saw was a ninety minute Benny Hill sketch’. And this is supposed to be a bad thing? This is not the place to launch a defence of Benny Hill’s reputation, I expect, but what you can’t honestly deny is that the man was hugely versatile, endlessly inventive, and consistently very funny indeed. And the same can be said for the slapstick sequences in Sleeper – one of the best comes early on, in which Allen has to descend from a balcony, having been issued with a ladder which is, tragically, just a bit too short, followed by an attempted escape using an unco-operative helicopter backpack. Yes, these sequences are broad, and yes, they are silly. But they are also very funny.

The general seriousness of Sleeper‘s setting and plot and the silliness of the slapstick could have ended up clashing horribly and producing a horrible wreck of a movie – but, and I can’t figure out how he managed it but I’m still sure it’s a noteworthy achievement, somehow Allen manages to arrange things so the two offset each other rather nicely. The result is a film set in an interesting and fairly coherent future world, with enough plot to be interesting and enough good jokes to be a lot of fun. One of my favourite Allen movies to this day – certainly when it comes to the Early, Funny ones.

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From the Hootoo archives. Originally published 26th February 2004:

[Originally preceded by a review of a film so appalling I shall not speak its name here.]

And so, thankfully, we move on to Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give, a somewhat oblique title for a film which makes no bones about Having A Point To Make. Fortunately the chosen media take the forms of two of the most watchable actors still working, so it comes across as a lot less didactic than it might.

Jack Nicholson is not at all typecast as Harry, a sixty-something hip-hop tycoon and libidinous rogue, who has an eye for the ladies (specifically those under thirty). On a weekend trip to the family beach-house of his latest conquest (Amanda Peet) he is unfortunate enough to run into her formidable mother Erica (Diane Lah-Di-Dah Keaton) who takes a dim view of his womanising and generally raffish behaviour. It is just his luck to have a heart attack that same evening, and even worse that his cardiologist (Keanu Reeves – no, really, Keanu Reeves) prescribes that he should stay in the area till he recovers – the only available residence being with Erica. But, and you’d never see this coming, it seems that there’s a bit of chemistry between Harry and Erica. Could there possibly be romance on the horizon?

Well, my usual goodnaturedness has been mashed out of me by the previous film, so let’s not beat about the bush: Something’s Gotta Give is overlong and a bit smug and not nearly as witty or insightful as it thinks it is. The characters are almost exclusively wealthy and well-educated Caucasians, all with a quite staggering degree of emotional articulacy. Given that the central topic under discussion – the subtle charms of the older lady – does not exactly possess the same pressing urgency as climate control or international debt relief, it could be argued that this is a case of much ado about nothing. It’s also an openly partisan film: Nicholson is depicted throughout as a priapic old rogue who must mend his ways, and most of the central relationship is seen from Keaton’s emotional perspective. (There’s also the odd way that the Nicholson/Peet liaison is implicitly frowned upon while a Keaton/Reeves dalliance is swooningly approved of.)

However, these criticisms aside, this is a polished and mostly intelligent film, with some very funny moments (most of them courtesy of Nicholson). Most of these come near the beginning of the film, which rambles off into much more straightforward (not to mention sentimental) romantic drama territory as it goes on, losing much of its sharpness and wit along the way. As I mentioned up the page, it also seems about fifteen minutes too long.

It stays entirely watchable throughout, though, and this is mainly due to two perfectly-judged performances from Nicholson and Keaton, whose presence together was enough to remind me of Hollywood’s 70s golden age. It’s an exceptionally classy double-act, with Nicholson’s armoury of Jack-isms complementing Keaton’s more naturalistic turn extremely well. The two stars really get their teeth into the script and probably make it seem a lot sharper and more intelligent than it really is. Having said that, it’s difficult to judge whether Diane Keaton genuinely deserves her Oscar win/nomination (Shazz, delete one of these as applicable come Monday morning, would you?) [A reference to the fact this was originally published immediately prior to the Oscar ceremony – A] – she is good, but I suspect nostalgia has played its part, and in case she often seems to be recycling bits of her Annie Hall performance, for which she’s already won an Oscar.

Most of the rest of the cast aren’t that impressive, not getting the material the leads do. But Frances McDormand has her moments as Keaton’s sister, and Keanu… well, Keanu gets bulldozed off the screen by Nicholson, as you would expect, and my initial thought that he’d made the interesting choice of playing the cardiologist as a surfer-dude only lasted as long as it took me to remember that he plays every part – FBI agent, techno-Messiah, 19th century English lawyer – as a surfer-dude. But it’s nice to see he’s still getting work.

There’s nothing actually bad about Something’s Gotta Give – it’s polished, entertaining, amusing and articulate, and it’s driven by very assured performances from two bona fide movie legends. But it does take a long time to come to a rather predictable conclusion, and has very little of genuine originality to say for itself. A rom-com with a bit too much rom and not enough com, but still a film of some substance.

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