Autumn is here, and with it comes a flash of despair at the meaninglessness of existence, with a few laughs thrown in. In other words, it's time for the annual Woody Allen comedy.
This weekend sees the opening of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, Allen's 41st feature film (excluding collaborations) since the mid-sixties. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about his films is that they continue to get made at all. At a time when the bottom has dropped out of independent film financing, Allen, 74, keeps working.
He's currently doing post-production on Midnight in Paris, yet another comedy starring a typical A-list cast - Marion Cotillard, Michael Sheen, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson - willing to work for scale wages. The cast also includes Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, wife of France's president, who shot for one day at the equivalent of a little over $200.
What is Allen's trick? Principally that actors, and European audiences and financiers, still hold him in high regard. Stars like to work with Allen, even for scale, because he gives them a chance to participate in movie history and offers the kind of writing that wins prizes. Five of his actors have won Academy Awards (most recently Penelope Cruz) and another 10 have received nominations under Allen's direction. His current film includes one Oscar winner (Anthony Hopkins) and two nominees (Naomi Watts, Josh Brolin).
Europeans producers, who do not interfere with his script or casting choices, still see him as a name director who brings them stars and lustre. In 2003, when French-American relations were strained over France's refusal to back the Iraq war, Allen was invited to Cannes for the first time with Hollywood Ending and made a commercial for the French government as part of a tourism campaign called Lets Fall in Love Again. Since then he's been back to Cannes twice more with Match Point and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, getting a big promotional boost for each of the films.
The English like him as well. Match Point came about when BBC films, an Irish bank and a Russian telecom company each offered to help pay for a movie if he could set it in London. Allen, who says his experience as a television writer taught him never to wait for inspiration, tailored his story to the English setting. Allen made his next two films, Scoop and Cassandra's Dream, there.
In Spain, he signed a deal with a Spanish production company, MediaPro, which signed Allen to a three-film deal, though not all had to be set in Spain. His wrote them a custom-made Spanish story - Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona - using English, American and Spanish actors. After Midnight in Paris will come a yet unannounced film in a third location.
Allen's foreign box office is typically a multiple of his domestic box office, in contradiction to the conventional view that comedy, being word-based, doesn't travel well. Even a bomb like Cassandra's Dream, which earned less than $1 million domestically, managed US$22-million worldwide. Occasionally, with such films as Match Point ($23 million domestic; $85 million worldwide) and Vicky Cristina, Barcelona ($23-million domestic, $96-million worldwide), he hits pay dirt.
Perhaps as a result of the European support, Allen has settled into his brand. DreamWorks tried to market 2003's Anything Else to a younger crowd by emphasizing its young stars (Jason Biggs, Cristina Ricci) and almost effaced Allen's presence. In contrast, the trailer for You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger makes it look, as one online commentator put it, "like every Woody Allen film ever made."
As well, Allen's name is prominent on the poster, an Art Deco-style illustration that shows a silhouette of a man against a full moon, kissing an unseen woman's hand, evoking similar images used for Smalltime Crooks and The Purple Rose of Cairo. The movie may be bleak and acerbic but the poster says mystery and romance, which is how fans still like to think of Woody Allen films.