May 27, 2007

The One Flaw of Woody Allen Movies

Woody Allen is a genius. From the urbane neurotic wit of Annie Hall to the madcap hilarity of Bananas, the man knows how to make a good movie. But in my further exploration of his work recently, I'm beginning to notice a strange trend: people don't respond to his jokes. In any of his movies in which he stars, about fifty percent of what his character says consists of hilarious one-liners probably relating to Judaism, his childhood, or Freud. Often, they don't really relate to what the character talking to him just said, or he clearly twists his answer to get in a joke. I don't have a problem with that. What baffles me is that all of these clever one-liners just fall flat and evaporate unnoticed by all other characters. In Manhattan Murder Mystery, for example, Allen's character says to his wife, "I can't listen to that much Wagner, you know. I start to get the urge to conquer Poland." After that line, it cuts to another scene. Later, he confronts his wife about her snooping around in the neighbor's apartment, and says, "Save a little craziness for menopause!" Someone would probably either be offended by that statement, or laugh because it's funny. But his wife just keeps talking about how easy it was to get into the apartment, ignoring her husband's comment. In Annie Hall, discussing a documentary about the Nazis, Annie wonders aloud how she would hold up under torture. Alvy (Allen) blurts out, "You, you kidding? If the Gestapo would take away your Bloomingdale's charge card, you'd tell em everything." Again, Annie would probably either laugh or be offended, but she just keeps talking about Nazis like he didn't say anything. And in Sleeper, Allen gets asked to lead a government revolution by some scientists, but he has this tangent about how he's not a leader type, got beaten up by Quakers, and screams a lot. As usual, the scientists ignore all his jokes, but they also blatantly wait patiently for him to end his little routine so they can go back to being urgent. I know that cinema is not real and dialogue is not always designed to echo real life, but Allen is doing himself - and his comedy - a disservice when he writes like this. It takes me out of the movie, and makes everything he says sound like standup that no one is listening to, or that both characters are just talking to walls. So I implore you, Woody...please let other characters respond and react to you!


Scott Nye said...

It doesn't work from an entertainment perspective. First, the more slyly-tucked-away the one-liner, the funnier it plays (especially on repeat viewings), and second, having your characters laugh at your jokes only gets read by the audience as self-congratulatory. It also messes with the flow of the narrative and (more especially and pressingly) the back-and-forth of the dialogue. Characters really will almost always only laugh in order to ridicule another character.

And this is true of just about every comedy movie ever...nobody onscreen laughs beyond a slight chuckle (or unless the scene begins with a character sharing a funny anecdote that has everyone else laughing already) when something funny happens or is said.

See also...Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development (actually most modern sitcoms), 40-Year-Old Virgin, any Kevin Smith movie, etc. etc.

Julie said...

I'm sticking to my guns here, because I believe Woody Allen movies are different than the other examples you listed. On Seinfeld, for example, the character's dialogue is funny, sure, but it always relates to the matter at hand, usually urgent. Plus, on sitcoms, most, if not all of the characters are funny and have funny dialogue, so they're not gonna react to each other that way. But in Woody Allen movies, he's the only one with the one-liners, and they're usually irrelevant. I'm not saying that the other characters should belly laugh at him the way the audience might, but some well-placed "Oh, (Woody's character's name)!" could work wonders.