A belated happy birthday to Woody Allen, who turned 80 this week. Let’s pretend I timed this post deliberately, as I review another of his best films and another of his worst.
Love and Death (1975)
Most of Allen’s films basically stick the same neurotic, sex-obsessed “character” (Woody Allen) in a different scenario, to see how he reacts – with hilarious results. Love and Death is a particularly hilarious example, dumping Woody into 19th century Russia and watching him squirm. The end result is a slapstick satire of Russian literature; The Brothers Karamazov meets the Brothers Marx.
At once philosophical and funny, poignant and absurd, this 1975 comedy is one of Allen’s finest. He and Diane Keaton reprise their comic chemistry, with witty monologues and debates about love and death; God and sex. (“Sex without love is an empty experience.” “Yes, but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.”) Every line is a joke and every joke lands, most of them revolving around Allen’s twin preoccupations of masturbation and morality.
The film’s wit is visual as well as verbal, featuring joyfully silly slapstick sequences. Its historical comedy is similar to Blackadder and Monty Python, but with an intellectual, existential twist unique to Allen’s work. He explores relationships, religion and killing, as his character is sent reluctantly to war. Keaton’s response? “Dress warmly and have a nice time!”
By 1998, Allen had realised that he could no longer convincingly play men who attract pretty young women – not that he ever could. So in Celebrity, he has Kenneth Branagh play him instead. Much more convincing…
Branagh does manage a great Woody Allen impression, but what’s the point? He’s ill-served by the material, playing a divorced journalist in a series of barely strung-together encounters with the dull, disagreeable world of celebrity.
Allen does little to subvert the institution, and at times seems seduced by the phoniness he once so sharply satirised; a recurring problem with latter-day Woody Allen. Here he just delivers a disjointed string of superficial skits, with less-than-hilarious results.
We get good performances from a young Leonardo DiCaprio, the wonderful Winona Ryder and the Australian Judy Davis – though a scene in which she demonstrates a sex act on a banana is far from Allen’s finest visual gag (if you’ll excuse the pun).
Impersonal, episodic and shallow, Celebrity is a misfire from the prolific filmmaker. It lacks originality, cohesion and laughs – and as Woody himself says in Play It Again, Sam: “Insufficient laughter; that’s grounds for divorce.”
But the worst part isn’t the long, meandering plot, nor is it the apparent attempt to equate fame with happiness. No, the worst part is a cameo from tomato-faced presidential loser Donald Trump. He’s the biggest joke in the film by far.