Shadows and Fog

By Hal Hinson

"Shadows and Fog", the new film from Woody Allen, is even less substantial than its title. No matter how you slice it, there's nothing to grab onto here -- it's a bowl of steam. Never in Allen's career has his work seemed murkier or more inchoate. It's as if the movie itself had never emerged from the pea soup of the director's own head.

In "Shadows and Fog", themes are referred to in passing, then abandoned, as if Allen were too bored to give them anything more than lip service. The setting is some dank, perpetually fog-bound European city, a city out of Kafka or Gogol, with twisting, labyrinthian streets and blind alleys. A Jack the Ripper-style killer is on the loose, and in the middle of the night a citizen's watch group pulls a petty clerk named Kleinman (Allen) out of bed to take his part in the Plan to capture the fiend. From this scene on, Allen stutters and gesticulates in his signature fashion, and never have his mannerisms seemed so irksome and intrusive. A real performance from Allen here -- one in which the actor relaxes and enters into the reality of the world he's created -- might have given the film some specific gravity. But, instead, Allen undercuts his material with antic -- and by now tiresome -- shtick. He's the sore thumb sticking out of his own creation.

Allen is a puzzlement, and his performance here stands well as a metaphor for how lost as an artist he is. By every stylistic choice, Allen indicates that his comic goal is a kind of Eastern European-style shtetl surrealism in which the fantastic and the magical cohabitate with the banal. With Carlo di Palma's dark-toned, black-and-white cinematography, the film has that meticulously worked-out art film look that signals seriousness and depth. It's Allen's Polish project, but the filmmaker's performance looks as if it were plucked straight out of "Bananas"; as if he'd recycled his younger, comic self as a safety net.

As a result, "Shadows and Fog" wobbles between being an art film and a parody of an art film. There are hints that weighty issues are being addressed, but they are only hints. When Kleinman visits the local coroner (Donald Pleasence), the doctor meditates on the nature of evil, hoping to get the murderer on his slab so that he can pick through his brains to discover the point where insanity ends and true evil begins. The circus is in town, too, and in their wagon after a show, a clown (John Malkovich) and his sword-swallower wife (Mia Farrow) bicker about having a child. The clown is against it. "A family is death to the artist", he says.

Fed up after catching her husband philandering with a trapeze artist (Madonna), the sword-swallower packs her bags and heads for town where she meets Kleinman, setting in motion an intricate series of intersecting plot lines that have her, first, visiting a brothel where a group of whores (played by Jodie Foster, Lily Tomlin, Anne Lange and Kathy Bates) drink and make jokes about the depravity of their patrons. Then, after sleeping with a romantic university student (John Cusack) who pays $700 for her services, she is back out on the streets where she and her husband, who has come looking for her, find an abandoned baby in the street and claim it for their own.

What we are to make of all this is anyone's guess. In addition, the film is so dark that you have to do a lot of guessing about the handful of stars who make cameo appearances. (Like, that is Madonna in the black wig, isn't it?) For Allen, the stars seem like something of a safety net as well. He gets nothing out of them, but if such big names -- including David Ogden Stiers, Kate Nelligan, Philip Bosco, Wallace Shawn, Fred Gwynne and Julie Kavner -- weren't used, then you might focus on how flatly the scenes are staged and how trivial the material is. As for Farrow, when Woody's not doing Woody, she's doing Woody, down to the last stutter. We know why she's doing it, but aside from the opportunity to work with a "legend", why would anyone else? "Shadows and Fog" is a tedious game of hide-and-seek. Close your eyes and count to a hundred.

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