September 15, 2010 by jamesessj
Alice — Woody Allen’s 1990 charmer about a Manhattan woman who’s got a pain in her back and so visits a supposed acupuncturist who turns out to be a purveyor of magical realism in the form of herbs…I’d seen Alice before, many years ago, and I’d forgotten much of the basic premise, which is quite ingenious: Chinese doctor gives woman various potions that enable her to see her life from different perspectives, thus allowing her to put her life into perspective. Well-done all around, with great acting from Mia Farrow, Joe Mantegna, William Hurt, and a then-new-to-the-screen Alec Baldwin. My only complaints are a) it’s a bit long and b) the Catholicism of the title character is handled hamhandedly; probably because generally speaking Woody’s none too subtle when it comes to religion; and then c) the ending is rushed. Overall it’s first-class Woody Allen, though hardly in the realm of Manhattan or Crimes and Misdemeanors.
The Awful Truth — Screwball comedy from 1938 starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne and directed by Leo McCarey; although “screwball” is inaccurate in this case, as the screwball-iest thing that happens is Grant’s and Dunne’s hitching a ride on the handlebars of two motorcycles driven by cops, which, compared to the screwball-ness of, say, Bringing Up Baby, is downright tame. But then most of the classic screwball comedies aren’t all that screwy: The Philadelphia Story is almost documentary in its realism, and His Girl Friday is about a man facing execution. Bantering comedies, they should have been called; or one-liner comedies; or just Cary Grant movies. He’s in all of them, and The Awful Truth was one of the first. The script is not as rat-tat-tat as I expected, though it does have its moments, and poor Ralph Bellamy gets to be the butt of Cary’s asides, as in His Girl Friday, but here Bellamy plays it more hick, less sophisticate. I wonder how he got to be the go-to guy for these sorts of rival-suitor roles…at any rate, having seen almost all of the classic screwballers (My Man Godfrey is about the only one I’m missing), I’m now prepared to state that, as a group, they didn’t really live up to my expectations. Don’t get me wrong, I adore them each, but somehow I’d expected more…more wit, more banter, more cleverness. Something more along the lines of the insanity and nonstop dopiness of (this may be a heretical statement) What’s Up, Doc?, which was, after all, Bogdanovich’s paean to the genre. They’re infinitely better than just about any comedy made in the last twenty years (what was the last great film comedy, anyway?), but not the exemplars of genius I’d been led to expect. You may now start the stone-throwing.
Synecdoche, New York — Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut. My roommate, as this movie wore on, kept saying, “This is weird…”, and he pretty much nailed it. There’s a strain of surrealism that crops up in American film that seems to be taken, by its practitioners, as Art-with-a-capital-A simply by virtue of its being practiced — it’s disappointing to see Kaufman fall into this trap, but boy, does he ever. From about its midpoint on, Synecdoche is a muddled mess, and though Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting is as brilliant as ever, I’m not one of those folks who wholly divorces a performance from a script; brilliant acting in the service of a ridiculous script becomes ridiculous acting, as Hoffman’s does here, especially in the scenes where he’s searching for his daughter, and then in the truly laughable scene wherein he finally meets, and is confronted by, her. Kaufman’s premise is a fun one, and there is some fun to be had — at one point there are three versions of Hoffman’s character on-screen: the original, the actor playing him, and the actor playing the actor — but on the whole this is a dark, dour affair. I nearly stopped the DVD on several occasions, fed up, but like a bad frozen dinner or certain relationships, after a while I just decided to stick with it to the end. By the time it was over I was hoping George Costanza and Jerry Seinfeld would pop on-screen and do a routine about “Schenectady?” “No, Synecdoche!”
September — Also from Woody Allen, the second of his “serious” films, after Interiors, nine years earlier. It shares many of that previous effort’s virtues and vices, and is, in the end, an equivalent “Nice try” type of failure. For whatever reason, Woody’s dialogue in these “serious” films is so much more stilted; even in Martin Landau’s portions of Crimes and Misdemeanors (i.e. the “serious” portions) this threatens to become an issue, but there you have a much more solid foundation and theme, not to mention Woody’s portions to balance things out. Most lines in September simply sound hackneyed, or awkwardly expository — like a bad stage play in which the characters are perennially reminding one another of their shared pasts, as if their pasts hadn’t, in fact, been shared. The actors do decent jobs, but there’s not a great deal of story here, and the blow-up, when it happens, is so overplayed by Mia Farrow and Elaine Stritch that it elicits more a chuckle than a tear. It’s a beautiful film to look at, God knows, but this is certainly among the biggest disappointments of what I think of as Woody’s Second Golden Age — the 1980’s.