(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
When all of the hype and the infamous history of its writer-director-star is removed, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall remains a superb comedy and a charming look at a romance that doesn’t last through the ages.
The core story involves the relationship between stand-up comedian Alvy Singer (Allen in, if not an autobiographical role, then surely a recognizable version of himself) and timid, flighty Annie Hall (Oscar winner Diane Keaton). The relationship has its ups and downs — first their meeting and courting (Alvy deftly manages his first kiss from Annie), their separation, their reunion at her behest, their growing apart from each other, and finally their non-reunion despite Alvy’s best efforts.
Two aspects of the film are most noteworthy. One is that, while Allen is usually adamant about not worrying whether or not he pleases his audience, here he uses just about every trick in the book to draw viewers into the story — trick photography, split screen, animation, and subtitles, among other methods. (Happily, the tricks all work.)
Secondly, while no one would mistake Allen for George Bernard Shaw, there is at least a thread of Pygmalion (or in a more populist mode, My Fair Lady) running through Annie Hall. The movie is subtle yet unflinching in its view of Alvy’s initial condescension towards Annie — making fun of her Midwest origins, urging her to read more serious books and take college classes — and in the way that Alvy starts to lose Annie as soon as she becomes more thoughtful and assertive.
Also noteworthy is the film’s supporting cast. Whereas in his earlier movies, actor Allen seemed to operate in a vacuum with anyone other than Diane Keaton, here Allen bounces off a noteworthy cast of contemporary performers — Colleen Dewhurst, Shelley Duvall, Carol Kane — and future stars such as Jeff Goldblum, Sigourney Weaver, and (in a particularly riotous cameo) Christopher Walken.
Detractors have stated that Annie Hall feels like a group of disparate elements randomly thrown together. (One reviewer said the movie was edited in the manner of “a nervous wreck packing” for a trip.) Yet this is obviously a reflection of Alvy’s declaration, in the movie’s opening monologue, that he is “sifting through the pieces of the relationship” to find out where it failed. And covering all of those bases makes the movie very satisfying — even from Alvy’s point of view. Although critics and viewers are quick to point out how bittersweet the ending is, by movie’s end Alvy feels richer for having had Annie in his life, even if she doesn’t remain there.
Is Annie Hall the Woody Allen movie for people who otherwise don’t like Woody Allen movies? Could be. It’s certainly a rare comedy that works to win over its audience by playing up to their intelligence rather than against it.
(For an in-depth look at the making of this movie, I highly recommend the out-of-print book When the Shooting Stops…the Editing Begins, written by Allen’s long-time [and Annie Hall] editor Ralph Rosenblum.)