A “Woody Allen film” has almost become a film genre. He frequently plays a neurotic New Yorker, casts himself, features a writer, a semi-successful entertainment figure, starts with narration, references literary works and sets his films in New York. These trademarks often underpin his work and his voice finds its way into his films when he’s not in them himself.
As a writer, director, producer and actor, Allen has built his film career… on himself. So why wouldn’t he be able to be indulgent. He started his Hollywood journey stuck on himself, it’s got him through decades and won him massive respect. His self-doubting, questioning and observational style of dialogue has become a major selling point to his quirky romance comedy dramas.
“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” seems to be the attitude he’s approached his work with… now a formula he’s content to mimic. It’s probably something that he’ll die doing. ‘Midnight in Paris’ was a curious departure from Allen’s quintessential trademarks and won him the most acclaim he’s had in years. Breaking from his usual constructs, the time-traveling Parisian fantasy with Owen Wilson hit the right notes. Blue Jasmine was also not a typical Allen film and was lauded with praise. Meanwhile his more traditional vehicles aren’t quite the work of the art they used to be.
Are people tiring of the formula? Well, ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ with Timothee Chalamet and Elle Fanning continues to appease hard core Woody Allen fans. New generations unfamiliar with his work are probably gravitating to his voice now because of the shift in values. The millennial age makes people who follow their dreams and get by on a whiff more admirable.
While the romance of being a struggling artist probably mirrored his own journey, it became a life’s work as it does with so many auteurs who seemingly tell the same story in many different ways. For Hitchcock it was the idea of being pursued, falsely accused and on the run from the law… dating back to an incident involving his father teaching him a lesson with some help from a policeman.
In Allen’s case, it’s expected that he will inject himself into his films… so no surprises there. However, there does seem to be a limit. This can be experienced in ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ as Allen delivers an unofficial sequel to ‘Midnight in Paris’. Splitting the protagonist at the point of departure, he’s created two journeys into the alternate realm of a rainy New York.
Now representing a young man and woman with Chalamet and Fanning respectively, he’s created two Woody characters. His voice is distinctive and the neurotic tone makes his films funny but often a bit insincere. This can work well when you’ve got other characters to play off the Woody, but it seems that there can be too many chefs in the pot. It’s still fascinating to watch the characters find their way through the mire, but the jokes don’t land as successfully and it’s difficult to empathise with their plight.
Perhaps it’s a mixture of the characters serving their own needs and not really caring about each other that makes them seem cold. While the co-leads are talented and even charming when they want to be, it’s a difficult balance when they’re perpetually in it for themselves. Allen loves having dalliances with no-go dinner table topics, but there may be such as thing as too much Woody.
Most screenwriters probably won’t have this problem. If people are wanting more is it even a problem? It’s probably something that most writers do, casting themselves in a role to help live through the character. This makes it easier to identify with their work, makes it easier for their target audiences to do the same and the connection probably makes the vicarious process of reading and immersing that much more conducive.
The key is to simply be aware of the predisposition and not to become over-reliant on it, no matter how popular your voice. If it takes decades of film-making for it even to become the slightest problem, well… you probably can roll with it.