The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

The Woody Allen reviews: 2000 – 2007

Posted by therebelprince on December 6, 2013

The Curse of the Jade ScorpionThe fifth set of my Woody Allen capsule reviews are below. As in the previous posts, all ratings are subjective, and I thoroughly recommend Every Woody Allen Movie for a more detailed analysis of them all.

34. Small Time Crooks (2000)

An out-of-luck criminal (Allen) and his wife (Tracey Ullman) plan a bank heist but when their cover business becomes an overnight success, their entire lives are changed.

The 1990s had begun to prove that Allen – as he aged – was better off as a supporting player (if that) in his own movies, and Small Time Crooks is somewhat more proof of that theory. The dialogue isn’t quite as sparkling as the golden years, nor does the film ultimately work as a unified experience. However, I must say I really enjoy it. Paired with Ullman, Allen mines a lot of fun out of this gauche couple’s rise to fame. The first third – the set-up – is probably the strongest, as a team of hapless crooks become a success story in business. It’s written with the ironic detachment Allen often brings to these kinds of characters (Sweet and Lowdown excepted), taking the skit-based notion of a front business that becomes a popular local hang-out and wisely condensing all the permutations of this concept into a small amount of time. In the second act, which thankfully centres on Ullman’s neatly calibrated performance rather than Allen’s uneventful role, the script accomplishes the clever feat of making our central characters the butts of the joke for failing to “pass” while also pointing out how shallow and cutthroat is the world they are attempting to enter. Things drag on a bit too long, unfortunately, with the farcical climax feeling slow and stodgy. What should be a pacy heist in which the band of cons we’ve met throughout the movie gather together to steal jewellery from Elaine Stritch(!) instead chooses to abandon the side characters in favour of… well, the same gag told over and over again. In the space of fifteen minutes, the tone of the film goes from Bullets over Broadway to Deconstructing Harry, and we don’t need that. Still, the cast is amiably bolstered by buoyant performances from Jon Lovitz, Elaine May (giving even the most bizarre lines a unique and funny reading), Tony Darrow, and Hugh Grant, who steals his scenes in a lothario kinda way. Enjoyable, but showing the signs of malaise that affect many Allen films between 1998 and 2004. 3.5 stars.

with Michael Rapaport, Larry Pine, Kristine Nielsen and George Grizzard

Tracey Ullman and Allen in "Small Time Crooks"

Tracey Ullman and Allen in “Small Time Crooks”

35. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

An insurance salesman (Allen) investigates a jewel theft with his rival colleague (Helen Hunt), unaware that he is unwittingly responsible. 

I recently came across this article from 2001, discussing how Allen’s fierce long-time producer Jean Doumanian implemented cost-cutting measures in the late ’90s that rid the director of many of his long-time collaborators, including his devoted editor Susan E. Morse. The article implies the culling may also have caused personal rifts. I can’t attest to the truth of any of this, but it certainly adds another cause to the lingering apathy most of us feel toward some of the Allen films during this period. And The Curse of the Jade Scorpion is a particularly lacklustre affair, unfortunately. On the plus side, the film – an unabashed tribute to the great films noir – looks just lovely, and its two leading females are two of the least neurotic women in Allen’s entire oeuvre. The screwball concept is quite funny, and Allen’s script gets a lot of mileage from the jaded interactions between the characters. However (and I hate to sound like a broken record here), Allen is uninspiring in the lead role, and the plotting gives us the answers at the very start of the film, leaving us to watch characters wander aimlessly around in what starts off as irony but gradually becomes tiresome. The funny concept just doesn’t translate into a funny narrative. It’s competently directed, of course. By this point in Allen’s career, I’d be hard-pressed to knock down any film too far simply because the man knows how to assemble a cast and keep a scene moving. This wonderful cast includes Dan Aykroyd, Charlize Theron, Wallace Shawn, David Ogden Stiers, Brian Markinson, and Helen Hunt as a Rosalind Russell-esque leading lady, yet they’re all let down by the inane dialogue and uneventful plot. Given that the director would make an impressive return to form in just a few years time, I’m inclined to think the mainstream critics are right for once: he just needed a change of scenery to renew his vigour. 2.5 stars. 

with Peter Gerety, John Schuck and Elizabeth Berkley

36. Hollywood Ending (2002)

A once-famous film director (Allen) plans a comeback after his ex-wife (Téa Leoni) asks him to direct an American blockbuster, only for him to suffer hysterical blindness during shooting.

More than one review of this film that I’ve read describes Hollywood Ending as “limp”, and I have to agree. Running just under two hours, the film is neither philosophical nor satirical (Allen setting a film among the film industry should’ve been cause for triumph), neither particularly funny nor ever unpredictable. It takes more than half an hour to get to the meat of the plot, and then we’re primarily treated to an old man constantly walking into walls while everyone around him acts like they don’t notice. Leoni gamely handles Allen’s dialogue, and her natural ability believably captures a big-budget producer, but even she can’t sell the twists as the film goes along. Despite spending so long on the same “blind man” beats, we’re all of a sudden thrown in to a new script that is half family reunion and half (unbelievable) rom-com. Hollywood Ending is – for me – unquestionably the nadir of Allen in the ’00s because it is made with no purpose, minimal charm, and a sense of idleness amongst its creators. Debra Messing has a lot of fun as a ditzy actress, and Peter Gerety and Barney Cheng play subtle-but-amusing comic side-roles. Unfortunately, despite casting Tiffani Thiessen as an ambitious young actress, and Treat Williams and George Hamilton as mainstream panderers, the script fails to extract a moment of satire out of their characters. Worst of all, not that anyone could’ve made much of the role, but this is Allen’s most straightforward, depth-free portrayal of his nebbish persona since – dare I say – Bananas! The film doesn’t feel as drawn out as those on either side, but it’s basically 2 hours of nothing. 1.5 stars.

37. Anything Else (2003)

With the help of an aging comedian (Allen), an aspiring writer (Jason Biggs) falls for a neurotic girl (Christina Ricci) who tests his commitment skills. 

It is said of artists that – as they age – they return to the same themes that have dominated their earlier work, as a way of engaging with, and perhaps correcting, their youthful ideals that have now changed considerably. The first three films I’ve examined in this post are odd curios from a bored master filmmaker writing scripts and directing them because that’s all he knows how to do. But starting with Anything Else, the rest of the decade is a cavalcade of familiar situations, archetypes, and themes, reinvigorated (most of the time) by the gradual shifts in their creator’s philosophies (as well as, sometimes, delighting us with ways in which he has remained the same). Let’s be frank: the character of Jerry is essentially a 40-something philosopher from one of Allen’s 1970s films, yet is played here by a young Jason Biggs. The character of Amanda is one of Allen’s most bald-faced approaches to female neurosis that ultimately comes off as manipulative and cruel and, as played by Christina Ricci, is perhaps too self-aware in a script that ultimately fails to correctly analyse her. On both sides, it’s an unsettling and often unconvincing central pair. Biggs bravely steps up to the role (and his on-screen chemistry with Allen is nigh-on perfect) but he’s fighting a losing battle in a script that is, for the most part, painting by numbers. And don’t get me wrong, the character of Amanda rings uncomfortably true to me, but there’s an edge to her that is either the result of Ricci mistaking her intentions or Allen betraying his own beliefs about a certain type of woman. It just sits the wrong way with me.

Will Ferrell, Radha Mitchell, Steve Carell: "Melinda and Melinda"

Will Ferrell, Radha Mitchell, Steve Carell: “Melinda and Melinda”

There are some delightful supporting performances by Stockard Channing and Danny DeVito (as well as Allen, who fits comfortably into the “secondary player” mold) but I’m again unconvinced that the script has much to offer, lacking the character insight that Allen showed as recently as Sweet and Lowdown and would begin to recapture (if not completely) in Match Point. Still, despite my many qualms, there’s something to be said about casting Biggs and his hangdog look. Even if he’s playing another Allen character, there’s one vital difference: Biggs seems eternally young, while Allen seems eternally old, and thereby hangs a tale. Jerry is not yet run down by the world, lending poignancy to the destruction of his relationship, and a note of hope at the same time. If you’re an Allen fan, Anything Else is at least worth seeking out. 2.5 stars. 

with Jimmy Fallon, Adrian Grenier, David Conrad, Erica Leerhsen and KaDee Strickland

38. Melinda and Melinda (2004)

Two playwrights – a comic (Wallace Shawn) and a tragic (Larry Pine) – tell stories based on the same premise: that of a distraught woman (Radha Mitchell) who impacts the lives of an inner city group of friends.

Perhaps unfairly dismissed as “that last crap film before Match Point” or alternatively pre-emptively praised by a certain type of critic, Melinda and Melinda impels me to comment on my bi-polar relationship with Woody’s ‘people-wander-around-Manhattan-talking’ movies. They’re inevitably less powerful than his sole character analyses, given as they are to telling us the broad strokes of a character’s existence and inviting us to fill in the rest with what we know to be true of our fellow man (even if we couldn’t see it clearly until he sketched in the outline), and less captivating than his “gimmick” films. Yet the very nature of their in-between-ness allows them to run a much larger gamut of emotions. Giving Melinda and Melinda the benefit of the doubt reveals a film that – if not a standout work – foreshadows Allen’s upcoming, sprawling works. There are two things that make Melinda and Melinda work. The first is the “narrative within a narrative” concept, allowing Allen’s usual flights of fancy to run wild without censure. The comedic half of the film is overdone but Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet commit to the material completely, allowing us to accept it in giant spoonfuls. The dramatic half – despite highly watchable performances from Chloe Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller – is less invigorating but plays to the other advantage of this film (and its sub-genre within Allen’s output): his understanding of just how people work. The film isn’t so much interesting because of the presence of the dual Melindas, it’s intriguing because of how people react to her. Those little ways in which we handle – or fail to handle – the intricacies of social combat have always been key to Allen’s comedy, and they’re infused here in a way missing in the last few Allen films. (The less said about Radha Mitchell’s bland, unevenly-accented performance in the title role, the better.) Melinda and Melinda is not a film I’d deliberately put in the DVD player but, when it comes up in an Allen marathon, it’s quietly enjoyable. 3 stars.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in "Match Point"

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in “Match Point”

with Chiwetel Eijofor, Josh Brolin, Brooke Smith, Steve Carrell, Daniel Sunjata, Vinessa Shaw and Zak Orth

39. Match Point (2005)

A tennis pro (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) marries into a wealthy family, but when an affair threatens his social position, he goes to lethal measures to cover it up.

A sort of British Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point is nevertheless a wonderful film in its own right. Eschewing his usual jazz standards for an operatic score, Allen’s camera expressively traces the environs of the English upper-crust while drawing clever performances from a cast of Allen newcomers. At more than two hours, Match Point is the director’s longest film yet, but it earns its running time by (very) slowly putting the screws to Rhys-Meyers’ character and setting up its jigsaw puzzle climax very cleverly. British critics complained that the script lacked natural idioms, and it’s true that Woody’s characters here are as prone to verbose self-analysis as any of the rest. Yet, just having a new, Anglophone cast finds different rhythms, even if the dialogue they’re working from could easily be shifted across the Atlantic. In the central role, Rhys-Meyers brings his usual brooding intensity to the role, with just the right trace of narcissism and a haunting portrayal of the intense emotions during the climactic sequence. It’s odd to see Allen tracing a highly cultured social group with whom he has little experience, but thankfully he’s got some grand support on his side. Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton are perfectly cast as his elitist parents-in-law, aided by the soulful Matthew Goode, who makes every one of his lines feel completely natural. Best of all, though, are the leading women. Where Crimes and Misdemeanors faltered, it was in making the women merely cogs in the plot of the lead men. Here, Emily Mortimer makes Chris’ wife a complete human being whose desires gradually fall out of sync with her husband’s, while Scarlett Johansson isn’t afraid to tackle Nola’s manipulative qualities even as she creates someone far more rounded than Anjelica Houston’s shrieking harpy in that earlier film. (The fault in that case being the script, not Houston.) This movie doesn’t have that one’s social depth or grand aims, though; it’s more of a tightly-constructed thriller. Match Point is Woody Allen stepping into the new territory that would dominate much of the next decade, so the edges are still a bit rough here. But it looks lovely, sounds lovely, and is just generally crisply done. 4.5 stars.

with Rupert Penry-Jones, James Nesbitt, Alexander Armstrong, Miranda Raison, Rose Keegan, Ewen Bremner, Geoffrey Streatfeild and Margaret Tyzack

Academy Award nomination: Best Original Screenplay

40. Scoop (2006)

An American journalist (Scarlett Johannson) on vacation in London comes face to face with the ghost of a reporter (Ian McShane) who wants her to investigate a string of murders.

Allen, Scarlett Johannson, Hugh Jackman in "Scoop"

Allen, Scarlett Johannson, Hugh Jackman in “Scoop”

Every time I watch Scoop, I thoroughly enjoy it, and when I read the negative reviews, I’m astonished. Yet, more tellingly, when I read the rave reviews, I’m perplexed. The film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny nor does it have one shred of precise character analysis. It is by no means a great film, let alone a great Woody Allen film. Yet Scoop is sweet and well put-together. Johansson and Allen have a laudable chemistry, Hugh Jackman is easily believable as a child of the lap of luxury who may also be a cold-blooded killer, and McShane – admittedly coasting along in one of those “two weeks doing a Woody Allen movie” roles actors so enjoy – brings an earthy presence to his role. It’s a film that takes us from shambolic magic shows to country estates, with a bungling pair of private eyes to match. True, it lacks the intensity of Match Point or Vicky Cristina Barcelona even when its lead character is in direct danger. and its escapist characters never reach the delightfulness of, say, Whatever Works. And one could also query whether the initial tip McShane receives makes any sense in light of the film’s ultimate revelations. But… that would be quibbling. It’s really still an enjoyable romp. 3.5 stars.

with Romola Garai, Julian Glover, Fenella Woolgar, Kevin R. McNally, Victoria Hamilton and Charles Dance

41. Cassandra’s Dream (2007)

Desperately in need of money, two ambitious working-class brothers (Ewan McGregor, Colin Farrell) seek out funds from their rich uncle (Tom Wilkinson) who asks them to kill someone in exchange.

Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell in "Cassandra's Dream"

Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell in “Cassandra’s Dream”

A film that – despite thematic cohesion and a powerful sense of foreboding throughout – proves quite limp. The three leading men give engaging performances, but they’re in the thrall of a script that just doesn’t dig beneath the surface often enough. The good stuff comes mostly in Allen’s taut direction during the sequence where the boys unexpectedly meet, and then prepare to murder, Martin Burns (Phil Davis), and in the dingy feel of the home of the boys’ parents (John Benfield and Clare Higgins, who create a believable couple with nuances far greater than the central characters). However from the beginning, the dialogue feels feigned – despite this being Allen’s third London film, it feels like his first true attempt to conjure up a British milieu – and the climax is just perplexing. In having a tertiary character describe the climactic events rather than showing them, Allen may have been thinking of Classical Tragedy, but he failed to bridge that gap here, and it really feels like a letdown. 2 stars.

with Sally Hawkins, Hayley Atwell, Ashley Madekwe and Andrew Howard

Next week: I wrap my examination of Allen’s films, starting with the towering Vicky Cristina Barcelona and his increasingly Allen-esque films from there on out.

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