… another wonderful Woody Allen movie …
What is it about the camera angles, the light and the naturalness of the actors that immediately let you know you’re at a Woody Allen film and you’re in good hands?
We’re in London, and in the midst of troubled relationships in two parallel couples, one old, one young. Pairs and parallels count a lot in this movie.
In the wake of despair because her husband of a lifetime, Alfie, has left her, Helena, and older woman in pink and a touch of ruffles, has found her way to a fortune teller who she thinks is both more useful and cheaper than the psychiatrists she saw after a near-successful suicide attempt. It turns out she’s right. Alfie, meanwhile, a wealthy businessman, bitter because his marriage never produced a boy, only a girl, has made the break for that one last fling, whitening his teeth, getting a suntan, going to the gym and purchasing a convertible, plus viagra.
Sally, Helena and Alfie’s daughter, is filled with resentment toward her husband, Roy, the one American in the bunch: they’re living off her earnings because Roy, though he published his first novel, hasn’t been able to sell one since. Also, she wants to get pregnant and he doesn’t want a child. Roy, at the moment, is on tenterhooks waiting to hear if the publisher will accept his latest novel submission, his irritable anxiety heightened by Helena’s tactless intrusions into their apartment — since she’s paying their rent, she feels she’s entitled to unannounced visits and, further angering Roy, Sally doesn’t seem to disagree.
In a hyper-fulfillment of the fortune teller’s optimistic prophecy that Helena will meet a new love, everyone meets a new love. Feeling listless from waiting for news of his book, and attracted by the girl across the way he sees through a window, Roy hooks up with her, Dia, a dark beauty from a well-to-do Indian family who’s about to be married to a very regular seeming young Englishman; the engagement is broken and one just knows this is a bad decision on Dia’s part. Sally becomes infatuated with Greg, the handsome, wealthy owner of the high end art gallery where she’s working. Alfie buys himself a call girl, Germaine, whom he goes so far as to marry and set up in a glamorous apartment with glamorous furs and … oh oh, a charge card. And Helena encounters Jonathan who’s not tall, dark, nor handsome, not wealthy either, but who’s warm and charming: they share a belief in the occult, of having lived before and in the possibility of reincarnation.
How the plot works out is truly a surprise. It’s not telegraphed. It’s awful. It’s wonderful! And leaves one smiling and talking and talking and smiling.
The relationships are fun to watch for the sense of recognition and sheer laughter — this is, after all, Woody Allen. But what does Allen convey through them? The affairs feel meaningful and imperative to those involved but what really is this thing we call “love”? Lust goes by the name of love and while it grabs hold of love’s high and individualized status, it’s mechanically a sure thing and — let’s face it — lovers are interchangeable. Roy lusts for Dia in her bikini underwear as he watches her through the window of the apartment he shares with Sally, and later he lusts for Sally in her bikini underwear as he watches from Dia’s window. In the film, two separate sexual relationships are initiated in exactly the same way — by a guy massaging a girl’s injured leg. That’s all it takes. Sally’s choice: Roy and Greg coarsely resemble each other. Roy’s choice: Sally has studied art and Art History, Dia studies music and music history. What’s the difference, really?
A view of mechanistic drives, and a downgraded significance of higher human faculties goes beyond the question of love in this film to the very heart of existence, and interestingly, again through parallels. At two critical points, the plot turns on rudimentary signals, the knock on a medium’s table, the eye blink of a brain-injured man. Language, definitions, subtlety, nuance become irrelevant — but only momentarily. That’s one direction. There is another.
Allen doesn’t leave us with the mechanical working out of love and life. For one couple, there’s a genuine meeting of the minds; they have much to share spiritually (intended pun, Woody’s not mine), as well as physically. Surrounded by everyone else’s disappointments and failures, they emerge to remind us that while tragedies end in death, by the end of a comedy there has to be at least one — life affirming — marriage. Woody Allen, for all his burdened awareness of the true identity of “the tall dark stranger we all meet,” is a great comedic creator.
I particularly loved Gemma Jones as the anguished, then frazzled, but fundamentally strong Helena, Lucy Punch as the realistic business person Germaine, and Roger Ashton-Griffiths as the sophisticated and tender-hearted Jonathan but the cast is all excellent. Anthony Hopkins is convincing as the vulnerable but crude Alfie (I don’t agree at all with critics who found him uncomfortable with the part). It’s fascinating to watch Naomi Watts’ range of emotion and purpose as Sally. Josh Brolin is an earthy Roy (I would have liked to see the writer writing something or at least have had a look at his computer), and as as for Anthony Banderas as Greg, the suave, successful gallery owner, what could possibly go wrong there? Remembering the witty, wonderful cast in their parts brings back the delightful hour and 45 minutes in Woody Allen’s created world. I can hardly wait for the next one.