Woody Allen: A Documentary

Fri, Jun 8, 2012, 01:00

Directed by Robert Weide 15A cert, IFI/IMC Dún Laoghaire/Light House/ Screen, Dublin, 113 min

This portrait is partial but the clips are class, writes DONALD CLARKE

NOBODY IS likely to mistake Robert Weide’s near-hagiography of Woody Allen for a great film. Had Allen murdered a bus full of children, Weide would, on this evidence, have found a way of dancing past the subject and moving on to the director’s winning manner with cinematographers.

For all that, it remains (to the Allen enthusiast at least) among the most enjoyable films released this year. Who wouldn’t want to watch Larry David, Richard Schickel and Martin Scorsese talking about the sometime Mr Konigsberg? The carefully selected clips alone justify the entrance fee.

The film is derived from a two- part television piece that Weide – best known as director of Curb Your Enthusiasm – made for the PBS strand American Masters. There

are echoes of No Direction Home, Scorsese’s Dylan documentary for the same series, but this is a somewhat less chewy, less rigorously researched piece. Its subject has many amusing things to say, but he doesn’t engage with the interviews quite as enthusiastically as did the hitherto opaque singer.

No matter. As Allen eases into the middle section of his eighth decade, the need for a definitive record becomes more urgent. The unambiguously titled Woody Allen: A Documentary will do well enough.

We are reminded early on that Allen has been famous for a long, long time. While still at school, he secured a job writing jokes for columns in major New York newspapers. By the time he was in his late 20s, he was the hottest comic playing the downtown scene. As one contributor notes, he entered the business as a teenager and has never been out of work since.

It hardly needs to be said that Allen, one of the age’s key pessimists, has mixed feelings about that career. He confirms the rumoured story that he hated Manhattan so much he offered to shelve the finished project and make United Artists another film for free. He still bemoans the fact that he was not born “a great tragedian”.

Yet, for all the conspicuous career troughs, Weide’s film confirms that Allen has an extraordinary ability

to resist significant decline. We end with the financial and critical success that is Midnight in Paris. Other highlights abound.

Opinions differ as to which films constitute returns to form and which suggest the treading of water. In particular, the contributors highlight the extraordinary contrast between American and European responses to Allen’s recent adventures in the old world.

Richard Schickel, critic for Time magazine, argues (as did most of his compatriots) that Match Point is a pinnacle of late Allen. Recently described by Barry Norman as the worst film Allen ever made, Match Point received a hammering from virtually every reviewer on this side of the pond.

No dissenting voice is called up to balance Schickel’s view. This should not surprise us. The documentary is scrupulously, at times embarrassingly, cautious about saying anything that might offend its subject. The kid-gloves approach reaches absurdity when we approach the still-troubling beginnings of Allen’s affair with Soon-Yi Previn, now his wife.

Friends confirm they were surprised when they heard he had copped off with his own stepdaughter. Allen, in one brief, unhelpful clip, allows that people are entitled to their opinions about his private life. Mia Farrow, Allen’s partner at the time, is not heard from. Indeed, the film spends more time discussing his efforts to persuade Dianne Weist to appear in Bullets Over Broadway than it does on this weird turn of events. This is rather like encountering a film on Teddy Kennedy that shows little interest in Chappaquiddick.

Still, we can safely assume that, had Weide not agreed to draw back from the subject, Allen would never have got to make this undeniably engaging picture. It doesn’t really offer a portrait of changing times. Allen is far too confirmed

in his habits to allow much of contemporaneous culture to seep in. But it does help explain how one man can, over half a century, find new ways of playing the same tune without ever becoming bored.

As John Peel famously said of The Fall: always the same, always different.