As my co-goblin Alex completes his Spike Lee journey, similarities between Spike Lee and Woody Allen emerge. Both are auteurs, generally writing, directing and even starring in their own movies. They both make their own type of films and lots of them, easily identified by their idiosyncrasies and usually outside of genre trappings. There’s a focus on cultural identity in both instances, in Lee’s case black communities and in Allen’s case Jewish, giving them both something of an outsider status in Hollywood. Now all we need is for Woody Allen to remake a cult classic of world cinema… Battle Royale perhaps? Anyway, here’s another of his best films and another of his worst films.
This is a stylistic departure for Allen, who plays Leonard Zelig in a mockumentary about the fictional man’s incredible life. Zelig is a “human chameleon”, so obsessed with fitting in that he involuntarily assumes the characteristics of those in his company – even physically. So he changes profession, personality, even race, to blend with his social surroundings.
It’s a completely silly but completely great idea, which Allen uses to comment on various aspects of society, from politics to the media. The film skilfully appropriates archive footage, puts Woody Allen in some hilarious make-up and leaves you smiling from beginning to end.
Patrick Horgan’s narration brings a superb dead pan to the clever jokes, while Allen puts in another excellent comic performance. Zelig is probably just as autobiographical as Annie Hall and Manhattan, dealing with the same issues of love and identity albeit in a more experimental way. The themes of identity and conformity are made explicit, using the bizarre premise to explore the idea of a man struggling with his personal identity in an increasingly fragmented world.
In little over an hour, Zelig becomes one of Allen’s most touching, funny and smart movies. Like all the best comedies, it walks a fine line between very clever and very stupid, drawing intelligent insight from its ridiculous subject; a man who is the ultimate blank canvas. Speaking of which…
Cassandra’s Dream (2007)
There are some things I just don’t want to see in a Woody Allen film. Battling it out at the top of that list are Cockneys and Ewan McGregor. Imagine my disappointment to find that this film prominently features both. It may be Cassandra’s Dream, but it’s my worst nightmare.
Cassandra’s Dream is a London-based dramatic thriller in which Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play cockney brothers Ian and Terry – pronounced Tewwy in the original dialect. They buy a boat, meet some women and get into trouble in a plot which becomes increasingly implausible and reliant upon coincidences.
If there’s just one problem with this movie, and there isn’t, it’s the accents. Quite why an Irishman and a Scotsman were chosen to play these cockneys boggles my tiny brain, delivering such dreadful accents that they not only completely fail to convince, but they end up sounding like very slow people.
Farrell’s native accent doesn’t so much trickle through as burst out uncontrollably, every “oi tink dis is a bad oidea” bringing him a step closer to expressing relief that he’s not in fuckin’ Bruges. But that’s nothing compared to Ewan McGregor, who remains unable to act in any accent other than his own, and even then only sometimes. He clearly struggles with the dramatic central role he’s inexplicably been given, and sounds like Frank Spencer has just joined Spinal Tap.
But as in Star Wars, McGregor is just doing his pitiful best with a pitiful script. The truism “write what you know” has never seemed more apt, as Woody Allen reveals himself incapable of writing contemporary London characters. To him, as to many Americans, there are two types of English people: Cockneys and Poshos. Also, add dialogue in which someone refers to a single woman as “babes” to the list of things I never want to see in a Woody Allen film. Then tick it off.
He also drops the ball as a director, either refusing or neglecting to retake scenes in which Ewan McGregor most severely resembles Dick Van Don’t – perhaps the New York director just can’t hear the insanity of the British accents. He also has an obvious fascination with his leading ladies, which is perfectly fine when they’re playing characters as interesting as those of Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow. But when they’re as under-written as Hayley Atwell in this movie, it becomes jarringly evident that she’s just there to look pretty, making the camera’s fixation all too apparent.
Half an hour longer than Zelig but infinitely worse, Cassandra’s Dream appears to have been made by someone completely different. Zelig is great; this is just grating.