This Friday, Woody Allen returns to theaters, for the umpteenth straight year, with Magic in the Moonlight, yet another effort from the acclaimed writer/director to be forgotten almost immediately after the house lights come up. That might seem like a somewhat harsh assessment given that, over the past decade-plus, the filmmaker has enjoyed something of a renaissance, at least in terms of box-office success (2011’s Midnight in Paris is his highest-grossing film ever) and Academy Award recognition; in the past few years, he’s helped nab Penelope Cruz a Best Supporting Actress statuette for 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Cate Blanchett a Best Actress win for last year’s Blue Jasmine, and himself a Best Original Screenplay award for Midnight in Paris. Yet despite those recent triumphs, as well as critics’ yearly game of anointing his new film as a “return to form,” Magic in the Moonlight stands as confirmation of a well-known fact: modern Woody can’t hold a candle to classic Woody.
In looking to pinpoint the turning point for Allen’s transition from vital auteur to adequately diverting annual fixture, it’s first important to note that what originally made his movies so great were their deft interplay between diametrically opposed modes: humor and tragedy, fantasy and reality, the impersonal and the highly personal. In his ‘60s and ‘70s heyday, Allen segued skillfully between the zany comedy of Take the Money and Run, the sex farce of A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, the political satire of Bananas, and the more piercing and intimate relationship dramas of Annie Hall and Manhattan. That versatility continued as Allen indulged his inner Ingmar Bergman (Interiors, September), delivered wistful (Radio Days) and cine-outlandish (The Purple Rose of Cairo) reveries, and then, at the height of his talents, found a way to merge his more amusing and austere impulses in a series of works that peaked with 1989’s alternately funny and fatalistic Crimes and Misdemeanors, and 1992’s equally great Husbands and Wives.
Through it all, Allen’s amazingly sharp writing, droll direction, and gift for vacillating from goofball humor to piercing drama were all rooted in a very clear and potent sense of the author’s own identity. Whether he was headlining his films, having other stars serve as his fictional proxy, or merely imbuing them with his trademark neurosis (about love, loneliness, fate, sex, the absence of God, and the terrifying brevity, and possible futility, of life), a Woody Allen film felt, in both form and content, like an expression of its author’s unique spirit. Even when his life spiraled into the tabloids in the early ‘90s, thanks to his real-life relationship with stepdaughter Soon Yi Previn, Allen’s movies felt like vehicles for the director to work out his anxieties and issues. Thus, when 1992’s Husbands and Wives debuted in the midst of that stepdaughter-related hullabaloo, its portrait of volatile marital relations seemed not a coincidental reflection of Allen’s ongoing troubles, but the direct and deliberate creative result of such turmoil.
That all began to change, however, after 1997’s underrated Deconstructing Harry, a scathing comedy in which Allen’s protagonist (a writer) wrestles with the not-so-pleasant consequences of a career founded on mining his life, as well as his friends, acquaintances, and loved ones’ lives, for his art. It’s a self-portrait of frequent ugliness, and one all the more bracing for its lack of soft edges. The following year’s Celebrity (with Kenneth Branagh assuming duties as the de facto “Woody” character) also trades in dark satire about the entertainment industry that sometimes comes across as the filmmaker’s means of slamming the very less-than-savory pop-culture landscape that turned his private life into fodder for public ridicule and censure. Yet it’s Deconstructing Harry that, in hindsight, seems like the last Allen film to have been truly ripped from his psyche.
With 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown, Allen began engaging in a more measured, impersonal brand of filmmaking. On the one hand, there have been his comedies, which during the first half of the aughts (Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending) played off his signature nebbish on-screen persona to dismal results, in large part because they felt like stale cornball rehashes, dominated by groan-worthy one-liners and wan period-piece nostalgia, of his more prior madcap classics. And on the other hand, starting in 2005, there has been Allen’s Euro-centric return to aesthetically refined dramas, which either dully regurgitated his lack of faith in God and cosmic justice (Match Point), or feebly plumbed romantic, sexual and class issues (Cassandra’s Dream, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Blue Jasmine) via stilted crime-tinged tales in which pretty people speak in nothing but creaky, exposition-heavy dialogue. In both instances, there have remained traces of some choice preoccupations (his love of jazz, his fascination with illusion, his fondness for May-December romances, his philosophical wrestling with mortality and spirituality), but for the most part, precious little of the man himself.
Without question, these latter-day Allen efforts have featured some fine performances, such as Sean Penn in Sweet and Lowdown or Scarlett Johansson in Match Point. And they’ve occasionally recaptured a bit of the old magic, most notably the pleasantly frothy Midnight in Paris. But faint whiffs of past inspiration notwithstanding, what most of these lack is exactly what made Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Husbands and Wives such masterpieces, and even slightly lesser works like Zelig and Stardust Memories such gems: a real, warts-and-all sense of Allen himself. What’s missing is Allen’s distinctive, inimitable personality, which even when he left the acting to others, defined his finest efforts’ atmosphere and attitude. Allen’s films were best when they felt like thinly veiled articulations of their maker’s eccentric hang-ups, be they serious (as in Crimes and Misdemeanors) or more ludicrously libidinous (see, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex*). Now, that tradition is carried on not by Allen, but by Larry David and Louis C.K., two Allen disciples whose TV shows mine idiosyncratic neurosis for self-reflective comedy that’s far more biting and profound than their own awkward collaborations with the director (David in Whatever Works, C.K. in Blue Jasmine).
It’s no surprise that Allen’s cinema retreated into more benign, less personal territory following the news-headline battering he took in the ‘90s. Nor is it stunning that, in the light of ex Mia Farrow and adopted daughter Dylan Farrow resurrecting child-abuse charges against Allen last year, his latest, Magic in the Moonlight, only obliquely addresses his current circumstances, via a plot concerning an older man attempting to prove that his younger love interest is a fraud. But that very detachment now gives new Allen films their own distinctive, if far less interesting or enlivening, identity. They're works by an artist now content to operate from a safe remove.
Nick Schager is a film critic who's contributed to The Dissolve, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among numerous other publications. He tweets here.