Wild Man Blues

Woody? Wild?

by Peter Brunette

Unfortunately, there's no wild man in Wild Man Blues, just Woody Allen. And for the legion of the already converted, his fans, this "remarkably intimate portrait" (to quote the accompanying publicity material) will be fun. For the rest of us, it's a disappointment.

By this point it's clear that Barbara Kopple, the maker of this documentary on Woody's European tour with his New Orleans jazz band, is a brilliant filmmaker. Having already won two Oscars, for Harlan County, USA and American Dream, she's a national treasure. In those earlier films, Kopple explored, in a powerful and unforgettable way, the forgotten plight of the working class, providing new insights on what America, deep down, is all about. Her more recent TV documentary on Mike Tyson was another laudable addition to her oeuvre.

In this new film, Kopple is largely failed by her subject. For anyone but his most devoted acolytes, Woody just doesn't have the weighty importance of her earlier explorations. While the relatively minor phenomenon of his amazing European success is documented, in an often entertaining way, it is never really probed or explained. The further problem is that Kopple's excruciatingly close examination of her fellow filmmaker yields very little that we didn't already know. It turns out, for example, that Allen is neurotic and unable to deal competently with the tiny travails of everyday modern life, and his Jewish mother is a noodge. But didn't we already know this? The actual moments of demonstration are often entertaining, as when the minuscule wake from another boat in a Venetian canal obviously makes Woody deeply uneasy and a gondola trip with Soon-Yi turns improbably into a white-knuckler.

Kopple's camera creates an intruding presence that puts constant, palpable pressure on Woody for nonstop hilarity. The one-liners reliably come, if in spurts, but again, they cover already well-worked territory. (I want to think that this pressure is an intentional, intellectually interesting sign of her presence, but this may be giving Kopple too much credit.) The heart of the film is the concert footage in various European cities of Woody and his New Orleans jazz band, but I -- granted, no expert on music of any variety -- personally found the musical interludes boring and extraneous. For a comedian, Woody is an amazingly accomplished musician, but he's just not good enough to support the camera's non-stop adoration. Early on, in an apparent defense of this music, Woody says that it's "simple and crude," and, for me at least, that sums it up perfectly.

Furthermore, Kopple's own artistic editorializing lacks imagination and drive. When we first hear the Fellini-esque music accompanying shots of boisterous Italian papparazzi pushing and shoving, it's cute, but by the fourth time around it has become a cliche. The film does build by the end, though, as we catch revealing, even touching glimpses of Woody depressed in Bologna, and tentatively speaking in a kind of code about his scandalous relationship with Soon-Yi. It ends in his parents' apartment in Manhattan, at what Woody deems "the lunch from Hell," in a kind of comic but subtle, unspoken explanation of how Woody got to be the way he is.

The greatest stength of the film is the revelation it provides about Soon-Yi, Woody's adopted daughter-turned-lover. The film actually should have been called Soon-Yi Speaks! for it turns out that she's an accomplished, self-confident, even bossy companion who is obviously more than capable of looking after herself. (There's a great little moment when she says that Manhattan, which concerns a May-December relationship very like hers and Woody's, is her favorite Woody film.) Whether this revelation is enough to warrant buying a ticket, however, remains an open question.

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