Tuesday 29 September 2009

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)

Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, José Ferrer, Julie Hagerty, Tony Roberts and Mary Steenburgen
It's been too long since I've seen a Woody Allen movie, that paradigm of neurosis who initially drove me batty but eventually won me over with his style. This is a gap filler for me, meaning that I've now seen everything from moment one with his 1966 redubbing of Senkichi Taniguchi's Key of Keys into What's Up, Tiger Lily?, all the way up to Radio Days in 1987, with one sole exception. One day I'll find his most elusive film, a 25 minute PBS special from 1971 called Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story that Henry Kissinger, the obvious influence, had pulled from broadcast.

TCM's Robert Osborne nailed this one with his highlighting two extremely diverse influences of Allen as the basis for the film: Ingmar Bergman and Groucho Marx. If you can imagine a film made by that pair, this could well be it: loosely influenced by Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, there are no Counts and Countesses here, instead being replaced by eccentric inventor Andrew attempting to take flight with a pair of homemade wings. Needless to say he's played by Woody Allen, and he actually has more success than you'd think. His helicopter bicycle gadget works surprisingly well and he managed to land Mary Steenburgen as a wife, even though she's called Adrian.

They're far from the only stars in the film, which focuses around a weekend at Andrew and Adrian's with two couples as guests. Professor Leopold Sturges, Adrian's cousin, brings his fiancée Ariel who he'll marry the next day. He's a vast intellect who has a habit of demonstrating it. 'I did not create the cosmos,' he tells his students, 'I merely explain it,' and in the form and voice of José Ferrer you can believe it. Ariel is Mia Farrow, a lovely young thing who Andrew had once brought back to his house years ago and still regrets not acting on his animal lust. Tony Roberts is Dr Maxwell Jordan, who gets over having to work with tumours and brain damage by seducing every woman he can find. In the absence of anyone else, he brings his new nurse Dulcy, played by Julie Hagerty, whose only been with him for five days.

The whole point is encapsulated by the title. Everyone seems to want to sleep with everyone else, though given that this is set way back in the day we do at least keep it across the sexes. There's no Gene Wilder and a sheep here. Andrew still lusts after Ariel, but now Maxwell has fallen in love with her too; Leopold wants to end his bachelorhood with Dulcy in the woods; and Adrian wants her anatomical knowledge to learn how to please her husband in bed as they haven't successfully slept together in six months. Beyond the gags, which of course pepper the entire story like buckshot, the comedy is in trying to work out who's going to end up with whom.

When it comes to Woody Allen movies from the eighties, it's often difficult to write a review. The cast are top notch, but they always were. The script is top notch, but it always was. There are quotable gags littered throughout, but merely quoting them is a cop out. Anyway, much of the genius is in the delivery and the repartee, and I could never put that over by throwing a line or two into this paragraph. Allen is far less neurotic than usual, far more an equal player in the story and a fine foil for Roberts, Farrow and Steenburgen. This was the first of nine films he would make with Mia Farrow as an actor and the first of thirteen as her director. It's easy to see him as an egotist, given that he writes all his films and generally stars in them too, but he's actually a pretty modest actor who spends much of his performance giving opportunities to the others in his scenes. In fact nobody really gets time to themselves here, almost everything being about interaction, but then it is a sex comedy, after all.

Surprisingly what leapt out most here, given such wonderful interaction, is the cinematography by Gordon Willis. Andrew's house is out in the countryside, which is emphasised as a character all of its own. There's deliberate use of magic here in Andrew's spirit ball and there's suggestion that the countryside is the magic that puts the spark in both romance and sex comedy. There are scenes that just flit from one countryside vista to another, with all sorts of fluffy animals leaping about demonstrating how alive the place is, and frequent long shots too, so long that the characters are dwarfed by their surroundings, again emphasising that they merely pick up on the magic around them, they don't bring it. Whatever the reason, this does feel like one of the more magical Woody Allen films, however fluffy it may be. His next two films, Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, are certainly better, both up there with his best work, but neither are anywhere near as magical.

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