Annie Hall

Dan Jardine

Casual filmgoers often think of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan as interchangeable. Both films arrived on the scene in the late 1970s when Allen was arguably at his creative peak; both are set in, and sing the praises of, Allen’s home berg of New York; both are underpinned by similar subplots and minor themes; and both are neurotic romantic comedies that revolve around bittersweet relationships that dwell uncomfortably on the apparent impossibility of finding lasting love.

However, while Manhattan is a contemplative and sensually sumptuous film, it is much more romantic than comic. On the other hand, Annie Hall is unrelentingly hilarious, with the sweet romance between Alvie (Woody Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) often taking the back seat to a steady stream of punch lines. Regardless of which you think is superior, even an Allen-basher would have to admit that these are two of Woody’s best works.

Structurally, Annie Hall resembles a Fellini film (Amarcord, 8 ½) in its biographical honesty and slyly comic picaresque quality. Annie Hall’s symmetrically alinear narrative flows according to the emotional whims of the narrator, a thinly disguised Woody Allen surrogate named Alvie Singer. As Alvie recounts the arc of his relationship with Annie Hall, his self-deprecating revelations (Alvie’s fifteen years of therapy reveal him to be, among other things, paranoid, neurotic, self-doubting, self-absorbed, xenophobic — about anything that’s not New York — and anally retentive) draw us empathetically into this romantic fable. Alvie’s obsession with the gradual deterioration of his beloved New York and absolute loathing for anything Californian provide the psychological setting for this tale of modern love amongst the ruins. Annie, the object of Alvie’s desire, is a jangling ball of nerves, a figure so skittish and scattered that it’s easy to see why she needs to smoke dope before bedding a partner. Their imperfections, so cleverly skewered in Alvie’s series of devastating one-liners, make them both appealingly human.

As Allen documents Alvie’s personal and romantic failures, he allows Singer the opportunity to occasionally intrude on the film, and break the fourth wall in order to comment sardonically on the foibles of those around him. He is particularly irritated by the faux intellectualism that surrounds him in The Big Apple. In one classic scene Alvie pulls Marshall McLuhan out from behind a playbill to upbraid an obnoxious moviegoer who persists in loudly sharing his ill-formed opinions about the movies – and McLuhan – with everyone around him. However, since Alvie is just as hard on himself as he is on others, his criticism feels just and not condescending.

Mid-film, Alvie informs us of Allen’s purpose in the film – to arrange the events in his life so that everything will make sense and perhaps turn out well – which also stands up as a definition of good art. That Allen is able to do this in a film of such raw-nerved honesty is admirable. That he is able to also make a film that is so incessantly funny is remarkable.

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