This is a film that knows how to create characters. Intelligent ones. Of all the great things about Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (of which there are many), for me the single greatest is that it has characters who know about psychology, and philosophy, and who are intellectual, and interesting to listen to. And it is also one of the most real, tenderly played love stories of its time. It’s also savagely funny, with Allen’s screaming wit providing a narration, and thus a spine, to the film.
Woody Allen is terrific in the lead role, a comedian called Alvy Singer, as a man who can never find happiness because ‘there is always someone somewhere having a bad time. It ruins it for me’. He is obsessed with death, and it is this obsession that has seen him through two failed marriages. When he meets the ditzy yet lovable Annie Hall, he suspects that he has found someone he can truly love and be happy with. Someone special. Of course, it isn’t to be, and the film recounts his life in flashback after she leaves him.
It avoids being a depressing, glum matter. Woody is a massively sympathetic hero, you find yourself wanting to put together his relationship just as much as he does. He is funny, and we all know people like him, and as a character he just works.
As a tour through one man’s life, this is incredibly entertaining. We go through every moment, even the ones you sense he doesn’t want to show us, and it is this honesty that the film is built upon. It may sound that I’m talking about a documentary, and while this is very much a scripted film, it is also, apparently, semi-autobiographical. The fact that each character seems so real backs this up. The fact that Diane Keaton’s nickname was Annie also sheds some light on this.
The film itself is stuffed with cameos of now famous actors and actresses (Shelley Duvall! Jeff Goldblum! Sigourney Weaver! Christopher Walken!), just as they were starting their careers. The supporting players are all a part of the film’s strength, grounding Allen’s and Keaton’s great performances in a world filled with great performances.
There is a lot to be said for this film, but for me it doesn’t get any better than the direct to camera digressions, in which Woody steps out of role (or does he?) and provides a wonderfully barbed vignette on the events onscreen. In normal films, this would jar, but it fits the quirky tone here just perfectly, Allen’s delivery not really changing as he addresses us, and the things he’s talking about being so true (we’ve all met people like the man in the cinema queue, for example).
In an age where comedies need to have swearing or sex, to be funny, while this does have some of the former and quite a lot of the latter, this is refreshing because it treats them like adult subjects, and doesn’t make them gratuitous. This is a true example of when they are funny (‘I never had a latency period!’) but for the way in which they are used, and not because of the fact that they are used.
This is a tremendous comedy, intelligent, funny, and true, that hasn’t aged a jot, and remains as relevant now as it ever could do. If you’ve never seen it, make it a priority to do so; if you have, watch it again to remind yourself how good it actually is. A film like this should be treasured.
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