Saturday, February 18, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.14: Woody Allen's Alice/Shadows and Fog

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next, 1990’s Alice and 1991’s Shadows and Fog.

Alice Grade: 66 (B)
Throughout his career, Woody Allen often chose to follow-up major steps forward (Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters) with a less complicated film (Stardust Memories, Radio Days). Such is the case with 1990’s Alice, Allen’s follow-up to the masterful Crimes and Misdemeanors and the director’s first film for a new decade. A loose remake of Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, the film shows Allen giving his then-partner/muse Mia Farrow one final, affectionate role before their ugly split-up in the early-90s. The film is not one of Allen’s more notable releases, but it’s a sweet, affable ride nonetheless.
Alice (Farrow) is the wife of fifteen years to the wealthy businessman Doug (William Hurt). She does not have a job herself, but she occupies her time shopping and spending time with friends. Alice meets and falls for jazz saxophonist Joe (Joe Mantegna), and she’s overcome with Catholic guilt, which manifests itself as back pain. Her friends recommend the unorthodox Dr. Yang (Keye Luke), who puts Alice under hypnosis and learns that her attraction to her husband is only skin-deep. Yang gives Alice several herbs, each of which have strange effects on her: one makes her more confident, and she approaches Joe under its effects. Another turns her invisible, which she uses first to follow Joe, then on a date with Joe, and again when she suspects Doug is having an affair. Another herb still allows her to spend time with the ghost of an ex-lover, Ed (Alec Baldwin). Alice goes on a series of odysseys before finally finding a new direction in her life.
Alice’s plot isn’t particularly original- an unsatisfied housewife realizes her marriage is dull and passionless and finds a more romantic partner. That the romance with Mantegna’s character doesn’t work out isn’t particularly surprising either. The supporting roles- Mantegna, Hurt, Judy Davis as Mantegna’s ex-wife- are all well cast, but none of them are stand-out performances. Even when Allen gets a chance to explore a few of his favorite themes- religion, guilt, the difficulty of relationships- he never cuts particularly deep.
What makes the whole thing work, then, is Farrow’s disarming performance and Allen’s lively filmmaking. Farrow never quite got the acclaim she deserved as a gifted comedienne. It’s a shame, given how charming and lovable she is here- it’s another great role for her. Alice is superficially satisfied with her life, but when Dr. Yang (well-played by Luke in his final film role) works his magic, her story becomes far more exhilarating. Particularly strong is when Farrow, in a sort of trance from the first herb, meets and flirts with Mantegna. Up to this point, we’ve seen Alice as a mousy character without the confidence required to approach a man she finds attractive. Under this spell, she’s now flirty, free-spirited, and nothing but smiles. She talks jazz and tells Joe his “eyes are on fire”. It’s an intoxicating scene; how could someone not fall in love with her?
Better still is Allen’s handling of the magical-realism elements of the story. When Alice (and later Joe) become invisible, their initial reactions go from shock to curiosity to newfound adventurousness. Who wouldn’t use invisibility to figure out what their friends do (or what a supermodel looks like changing)? Even better is when the two take a cab and they still have to pay the driver (“nothing surprises New York cab drivers”). The best sequence in the film, however, is Alice’s time with Alec Baldwin. Baldwin in the late-80s and early-90s was a consistently exciting presence from Miami Blues to Glengarry Glen Ross to Beetlejuice (these days he coasts when he’s not on 30 Rock or working with Scorsese). Baldwin is the unpredictable artist-lover Alice left when their relationship got rocky; it’s easy to see why, yet he’s a charming, charismatic character who “doesn’t look bad, considering you’re dead.” The scenes between the two have a magical, wistful feeling reminiscent of The Purple Rose of Cairo’s relationship between movie fan and movie character. They dance. They fly over New York. They reminisce. It’s a shame the character can’t have a bigger role in the film, but then it’s a shame he didn’t have a bigger role in Alice’s life.
Shadows and Fog Grade: 38 (C)
Alice is a decidedly unambitious film from Allen, but it’s consistently pleasant and funny. The same can’t be said for Allen’s follow-up, Shadows and Fog. A tribute to the German Expressionism of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, the film is an uneasy mixture between a classic style and Allen’s own unique voice. It’s rarely actively terrible, as too many of Allen’s later films would be, but it’s also rarely funny or memorable in any way. With Allen’s previous misfires, it was always clear that no matter how misguided, Allen was really going for something. Here, it’s not even clear what he was trying to accomplish in the first place.
There’s a serial killer known only as “the strangler” on the loose, and a vigilante mob has formed to catch him (shades of Fritz Lang’s M here). Kleinman (Allen), a meek clerk, has been forced to join the mob. Meanwhile, the circus is in town, and sword-swallower Irmy (Mia Farrow) is having an argument with her clown boyfriend Paul (John Malkovich). Irmy wants to have a baby, but Paul thinks that “family is death to the artist”. When Irmy catches Paul cheating on her with a tightrope artist (Madonna), she goes off into the night. She finds a place to stay at a brothel, where the prostitutes (Lily Tomlin, Kathy Bates, Jodie Foster) are entertaining a group of college students. One student (John Cusack) wants to sleep with Irmy, and promises her $700 for her services. Everything comes together as Irmy and Kleinman meet at a police station and try to catch the killer.
Based on Allen’s one-act play Death, the film doesn’t have a coherent plot so much as it has a bunch of stuff happening. Allen assembled a phenomenal cast (Malkovich, Bates, Tomlin, Cusack, Foster, Donald Pleasence, Kenneth Mars) and gave them nothing to do. With a great cinematographer like Carlo Di Palma at his side, the film more or less captures the look of German Expressionism, but it never captures the feel. Allen includes a few of his favorite themes- religious skepticism, death, sex- and even throws in a side-story of a magician (Mars) whom Allen admires and joins. But the lines aren’t very funny, the film itself is rather shallow, and there’s a queasy sign of things to come given that most of the female characters are prostitutes (seen in more insidious forms in Mighty Aphrodite and Deconstructing Harry) who aren’t given any depth. Hearing Jodie Foster and Kathy Bates talk smutty isn’t sexy or funny- it’s uncomfortable and groan-inducing (when Farrow introduces herself as a sword-swallower, one of the prostitutes says “me too”). Shadows and Fog looks great and manages to not leave a bad taste in the mouth, but that’s mostly because of how utterly forgettable the film is.

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