review: annie hall

August 26, 2006

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Woody Allen stares into the camera, showing us his character’s–and, in a very real sense, his own–emotional earnestness, biting brilliance, and at-times hilarious neuroses from the very first frames of his 1977 romantic comedy/drama Annie Hall. It is those qualities that launched and ended Alvy Singer’s two failed marriages and which bring him to his hearbreakingly romantic and richly complex romance with Annie Hall, Diane Keaton’s ditzy, confused, and utterly charming nightclub singer.

Like all good relationship-centric films, the plot of this one matters little; what we really remember are the characters: who they are, what they stand for, and how we leave them (in this case, wallowing in a melancholy yet hopeful blend of sentimentality and harsh realism). Alvy is only a hair’s breadth away from Woody Allen himself, a Jewish comedian whose jokes thrill audiences yet are sourced from deeply-rooted self-loathing that only gradually develops into something less morose; he begins and ends the film with a line variously attributed to Groucho Marx and Sigmund Freud that takes on new life in Allen’s shaky, subtly humorous delivery: “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” It is this view that in some respects dooms the relationship from the start, evident from opening monologue’s chronological place at the end of our tale.

But that is only one of the many tricks Mr. Allen with time, space, and memory; throughout the film Alvy recalls events both as he remembers them and as he wishes they had happened, stepping in and out of them as a ghostly echo of a man unable to change what he so obviously regrets. Annie, by contrast, has none of these problems, though her emotional vulnerability and kind-hearted attachment to Alvy prove an unpredictable combination. A free spirit with a delightfully eclectic wardrobe, she is taken with his wit and genuine affection while he is caught up in her innocent beauty and unique ability to make his burdensome world-weariness dissolve into the ether. Even as Alvy’s gloomy worldview threatens to drive them apart as Annie’s music career takes off, we continue to root for them. They ought to be together: that much is clear.

In fact, Allen and Keaton were once romantically involved, only heightening the uncanny ease with which the actors glide through their scenes together. Whether people-watching or standing on line at the cinema, whether arguing about the “Buick-sized” cockroach in Annie’s bathroom or corralling a rogue lobster in her kitchen, they are a couple. Their breezy rapport brings to mind Richard Linklater’s great films Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset, creating the fantastic “meant to be” couple and then embracing it in all its splendor. The sheer reality of these characters is stunning, surpassing even my inflated expectations. In one terrific scene, Alvy “defuses” the tension by asking for a kiss at the start of their first date: “We’ll both be worrying about it otherwise,” he says. Naturally, she obliges.

Coming in at #31 on the American Film Institute list, Annie Hall repeatedly defies genre conventions, especially with its ending, ending up a film far better than its premise might suggest. Allen’s devotion to the project carries the day, and the focus is always on the acting, with no score or fancy title sequence to distract. Unfortunately for DVD lovers, the letterbox-only transfer disappoints not only with its inherent limitations but with generally poor print quality throughout, including unsightly dust and hair littering certain scenes. The time is ripe for a special edition, I think, though readers of this review certainly shouldn’t wait until then to see this enormously enjoyable film.

–D. S. W.

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