Well, here we are. It's July so there must be another Woody Allen movie out and, yeah, I know. I don't really want to be here, either.
The annual instalment – either his 42nd or 421st, depending on how you count – is lately approached with a shrug of polite indifference or perhaps, in the right company, a measure of nostalgia to stir the fatigue. We're in a post-Allen world, past dread and caring, one where talk of his recent movies isn't as heated as it might have been even a decade ago.
So what do we talk about when we talk about Woody Allen movies?
It starts with the Creepy factor. "He's the most horrifying stepfather-figure since Humbert Humbert! He married his daughter!" (Not his daughter, technically, but the daughter of his then-girlfriend, nearly 20 years ago.)
Stock counter-argument: "Oh, but Annie Hall!"
Yes, Annie Hall. Diane Keaton. Mantras. Marshall McLuhan. Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director. The praise of which usually means at least one mention of Joan Didion's 1979 New York Review of Books takedown of the "hermetic self-regard" of Allen's string of hits in that era, including Interiors and Manhattan.
Mariel Hemingway played the Allen character's teenage girlfriend in Manhattan and a morsel in her new memoir Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction and Suicide in My Family recalls how, in real life at the time, the director wanted to take her to Paris and spend time together there. "I didn't know what the arrangement was going to be, that I wasn't sure if I was even going to have my own room."
Hemingway alleges that when she realized that wasn't the plan and vocalized that she expected separate quarters, Allen immediately left. Creepy. Scandalous. Unless you know anything at all about the seedy side of showbiz.
Someone will soon point out the pattern of "ridiculous" age differences: 28 years between Emma Stone and Colin Firth in last summer's Magic in the Moonlight, or 14 years between Stone and Joaquin Phoenix in this summer's Irrational Man, about romantic and criminal intrigue between a student and her teacher at a Rhode Island college.
But that eventually leads to … examples using the Hollywood History Defense. Improbable ingenue-avuncular pairings are also what showbiz is built on. (See also: Feminism, Double-Standard, Ageism, Hollywood.)
A cursory rummage through beloved hits that also feature improbable May-December love interests: Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart (24 and 55, Sabrina); Hepburn and Gregory Peck (23 and 37, Roman Holiday); Hepburn and Fred Astaire (28 and 58, Funny Face); Hepburn and Cary Grant (33, 59, Charade). Or Grace Kelly and Grant, 26 and 55, in To Catch a Thief.
It's something Allen himself spoofed in Deconstructing Harry. It's a convention that's problematic, but it has a precedent and isn't exactly history – the contemporary Richard Gere, Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington careers, to name just a few offenders. Never mind that these romantic pairings are also not the bulk of the director's output. He's done sci-fi, capers, slapstick, pastiche and Hannah and Her Sisters.
A half-hearted attempt is then made to separate the art from the artist. The prolific director doesn't seem to care what critics or audiences think of his movies or of him personally, and stays out of the echo chamber of tabloid gossip, stepping out only for more serious open-letter accusations, such as last year's allegations of childhood molestation by daughter Dylan Farrow.
Yet Allen himself cannot, in his art, seem to resist tweaking elements of his real-life notoriety.
In the talky contemporary films, Allen's character alter egos (and subsequent stand-ins) emulating Alvy Singer's neurotic existential patter offer decidedly personal allusions. So do plot points. If audiences feel affronted, somehow reading autobiographical justifications into the script, it's because they're there.
Irrational Man – a riff on Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train that explores morality and the banality of evil with more than a dash of Dostoyevsky and misdirection with Chekhov's gun, is a treasure trove of Fabergé Easter eggs. Even inconsequential details that could literally have been written as anything less self-referential aren't. Not just the non-stop exculpatory sophistry of the anti-hero but things such as a stranger who laments her situation (it being the ethical corruption of a family court judge keeping her from her children, as Allen did in real life). It's not a game of Russian roulette so much as a Russian nesting doll of metafiction.
In Magic in the Moonlight, Firth's character espouses that he is in love with a woman much his junior in spite of himself and inexplicably, basically because the heart has its reasons that reasons cannot understand. It's too close for comfort to Allen's own 1992 Time magazine interview, the one that riffed Pascal's aphorism with "the heart wants what it wants" to dismiss criticism and explain his contentious romance (now marriage) to his then-girlfriend's daughter.
Why do so many actors act in Woody Allen Movies if he's still so vaguely distasteful? In a word, credibility. Dubious as it is, and even if he's now ersatz. The writer and director, 79, has been a sui generis genre for decades (the best Woody Allen Movie of recent years has been Listen Up Philip, and at that director Alex Ross Perry bests all but the hits).
When A-list actors promote the Allen movie du jour (because Allen himself seldom does), they gush about how honoured they are to be in A Woody Allen Movie. Yet Allen himself debunked taking any of that glittering, flattering credit in Casting By, the 2013 documentary about talent scout and casting pioneer Marion Dougherty that highlights her influence and by extension, that of her onetime protégé Juliet Taylor, who took over Dougherty's gig with Allen in the early 1970s and has cast every Woody Allen Movie since 1975.
As Allen acknowledged again later in an open letter to The Hollywood Reporter asking the Academy Awards to recognize the crucial role of the profession with its own category: "My history shows that my films are full of wonderful performances by actors and actresses I had never heard of and were not only introduced to me by my casting director, Juliet Taylor, but, in any number of cases, pushed on me against my own resistance," he writes, and credits discoveries and careers of the likes of Meryl Streep and Dianne Wiest to Taylor.
Even established stars like Cate Blanchett win Oscars – for Blue Jasmine, because the hand-wringing fallen Streetcar belle with runny mascara will always win the Tony over the understated performance – that's one of the reasons Tennessee Williams is popular audition monologue material. (Given Allen's legendary lack of directorial direction, it's probably all the more deserved.)
He doesn't choose his stars, really, and then he doesn't really direct them. Yet all this might be forgiven, or at least forgotten for 95 minutes, if the movies were any good. And this is where ends the discussion – and in recent years, easy dismissal – of whatever new movie has prompted talking about Woody Allen. Oh, but didn't he write that funny "Shouts & Murmurs" that time? Sure, Allen was born a comedian. He can be funny on the page. Sometimes even, still, in movies, as recently as the comic relief in the role of wisecracking bookstore-owner-turned-pimp Murray in Fading Gigolo. But that movie was written and directed by John Turturro.
With Irrational Man, both the anti-hero and the movie are laughably self-important, hectoring on Kierkegaard and Kant, the sort of unbearably pretentious stuff a Woody Allen Movie used to send up. He has excellent ingredients – the charming premise, the cinematographer, the original score, the talented actors and a charming premise – and in an act of almost more incredible arrogance than the aforementioned self-reference, shamelessly squanders them all with lazy scripts and un-directing. You can almost see the actors straining to find something beyond the rough draft of words and dialogue (picture the script as: [enters, lovestruck]), strictly back-of-a-cocktail-napkin stuff.