ANNIE HALL (review)
Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman / Directed by Woody Allen / Starring Woody Allen, Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts
Alvy Singer: A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.
ANNIE HALL is my favourite movie of all time. I realize this is a lofty statement to make but everyone’s got one and this is mine. All ninety-three minutes of it make me happy … except for the last anecdote of the film. That just makes me weepy because, firstly, it’s so poignant, but also, having seen the film so many times, I know when I hear it, the film will soon be coming to an end. And like everyone who has a favourite movie, I too have my own unique reasons for choosing this film. These are those reasons.
The aforementioned anecdote involves a man whose brother thinks he’s a chicken; he won’t turn his brother in though because he needs the eggs. Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, then explains that this is essentially how he sees relationships now, having loved and lost his long term girlfriend, Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), at this point; they’re completely irrational to be a part of but we all keep putting ourselves through them because we need the eggs. Ultimately, the sustenance outweighs the insanity.
Now, this can certainly be interpreted as a rather cynical view of relationships but ANNIE HALL doesn’t condemn relationships. Rather, it strives to understand them, looking at their inception, the history that informs them and the fine line between maintaining the individual without alienating the whole. I think Allen wants to be happy, deep down underneath all that social anxiety and animosity.
Despite being named after its heroine, ANNIE HALL begins by introducing us to Allen’s Alvy. Alvy narrates, which helps to endear him to us by exposing all of his issues and laying out his vulnerability bare for all of us to pick apart. Many people see Allen as egotistical, and often times he can be, but the flip side of that coin is a man overcompensating for his insecurities by throwing them all in our face and begging us to like him.
Alvy Singer is a comedian, which is fitting given how miserable he is. (Miserable is better than horrible, mind you, but I digress.) He keeps reminding us at first that he isn’t this type of character or that type of character and we know right away that, as a narrator, he cannot be trusted because he doesn’t really know who he is, or if he does, he doesn’t much want to admit it. We know this because he is exactly the type of character he says he isn’t, which is to say he is a depressive character. And as we tend to gravitate towards the opposite of what we are, Alvy’s dark is drawn to the light that is Annie Hall.
Alvy meets Annie at a tennis match and thus the games begin. Annie is all smiles, all innocent, all la di da. She awkwardly invites him back to her place for a drink after the game and at first, it is very hard to see what might be the spark that brings these two together. In one of Allen’s many creative touches to the film, it becomes more clear when Allen subtitles the conversation they have on her rooftop about her interest in photography. While they’re saying one thing, they mean another and what they aren’t saying says far more about how they are each just hoping to find someone who will like them, flaws and all.
The subtitles are just one of many innovative approaches Allen takes to telling this story, which was co-writen by Marshall Brickman. While many of his choices may seem commonplace today, at the time, it was clear that Allen was pushing himself further as a director than he had previously. With Allen fully engaged in his storytelling, we are treated to amalgamated family dinners with split screens to bridge the gap, ghosted images layered onto a scene to drive home the growing distance between the characters, and adorable shots of kids facing the camera and talking about where they end up in life (“I used to be a heroine addict. Now I’m a methadone addict.” is one of the best lines ever). Allen even breaks the fourth wall (gasp!) to pull an obnoxious film critic out of line and have him lambasted and put in his place by a real life Marshall McLuhan. (Tell us how you really feel, Woody!)
That theatre scene where Allen sticks it to his critics is just one of the many timeless moments in ANNIE HALL. The most famous is likely what is affectionately referred to as the lobster scene. Alvy and Annie, early on in their relationship, chase lobsters around the kitchen, all the while laughing and beaming with love for each other. It’s a cute scene but it has endured for so long because of the great chemistry between these two actors. Keaton of course won the Oscar for her performance, and deservedly so; her Annie is one of the most complex women in the cinematic pantheon. And while Alvy is what people now expect from Allen, at the time, this was the epitome of the Woody Allen archetype; Allen may be playing a version of himself but he has never been better in the part than he is here. Their chemistry continues in yet another classic scene from the film, where they sit on a park bench and imagine the lives of the passersby. Both scenes are incredibly simple and effortless, which is perhaps what makes them also so romantic.
It cannot all be lobsters and park benches though. Eventually, their opposite natures begin to tear them apart (just like the universe will do billions of years from now as it expands). Alvy’s undoing is his own need to control the situation. He likes the way Annie holds him in her esteem but wants her to be someone she isn’t. As he cannot be as free as she is, he tries to make her more like himself, or at least change her into someone more like he imagined. In doing so, he grounds Annie, and nearly kills the parts of her that first attracted him to her to begin with. He even pays for the therapy that ultimately allows her to see she wants different things. This divide between them is further exemplified by his attachment to New York City and her pull towards Los Angeles, a city Allen clearly loathes.
One of the greatest ironies of ANNIE HALL is that Allen goes out of his way to point out the fallacy of Hollywood in the film, going so far as to suggest that all they do is give out awards. ANNIE HALL would go on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Keaton, Best Director for Allen, Best Original Screenplay for Allen and Brickman and ultimately Best Picture (beating out the original STAR WARS). True to form, Allen did not attend the ceremony to accept his awards.
Nearly forty years later, ANNIE HALL still holds up incredibly well. Every time I watch it, I still laugh out loud and out of nowhere; there are so many genius asides (“I forgot my mantra!”) that resonate to this day with relevance, it is easy to see why it is oft regarded as one of the best comedies ever made. As hilarious as the film is though, it is its heart that keeps me coming back for more. Allen doesn’t judge Alvy or Annie; he just lets them be themselves and lets them stumble along on their journey toward love. Make no mistake though; love is always the goal, which is what makes ANNIE HALL an incredibly romantic comedy, even though romance doesn’t win out in the end. At the very least, it makes a very compelling case for the need for eggs no matter what the cost. La di da, la di da …
How many sheep would you give Annie Hall?