To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy – which is the sort of thing Woody Allen does all the time – each good Woody Allen film is good in its own way, but all bad Woody Allen films are alike. I wouldn't presume to tell you how to make a film like Sleeper, or Love and Death, or Annie Hall, or Manhattan, or anything from that astonishing purple patch in the '80s. All these films are touched by greatness, and each is unique.
Trailer: Magic in the Moonlight
Trailer: The Wild Life
Trailer: Hell or High Water
Trailer: Doctor Strange
Trailer: Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
Trailer: The Red Pill
Trailer: Magic in the Moonlight
A master illusionist who is invited to a family mansion to unmask a possible swindle involving an alluring young clairvoyant named Sophie.
But churning out nearly one film a year for almost half a century is verging on the pathological, as though filmmaking itself has become one of Allen's nervous tics. With a work rate like this, a few duds are inevitable.
We might not all agree as to which the clunkers are, but the elements are now so familiar you too could probably cobble together a bad Woody Allen film. Though of course it helps if A-list actors are clamouring to work with you, and cinematographers such as Darius Khondji or Vilmos Zsigmond are on hand to ensure the results are at least beautifully photographed.
From Annie Hall onwards, with a single exception (Interiors), all Allen's credits have been in white Windsor Light Condensed against a black background. It's his signature, so when other filmmakers use plain white on black in the opening credits (as Rob Reiner did in When Harry Met Sally) you know they're aiming for that Woody vibe.
Take your pick from (a) Cole Porter or Irving Berlin, (b) popular classical pieces, or (c) trad jazz. It should be crackly, as though recorded directly from Allen's own collection of 78s. But whatever the music, it will come in useful when you want to plug a gaping hole in your screenplay, or don't know how to get from one scene to another.
Film what you know
Allen's traditional stomping ground is, of course, Manhattan. More specifically, moneyed, upper-middle-class Manhattan, where everyone dwells in the sort of apartments the rest of us can only dream about, wears colour co-ordinated knitwear and goes to the opera, or stands around making quips at art exhibitions. Since the turn of the century, he has been venturing farther afield, with what might charitably be called "mixed results". And yet he is still filming what he knows. His knowledge of London, Paris or Rome is accordingly limited to that of a wealthy American tourist who stays at the swankiest hotels, dines at the poshest brasseries and meets only the most stereotypical examples of the natives.
He seems to have exhausted his own first-hand experience, but shows no real interest or curiosity about anything outside it. His Italians are lovable buffoons, madonnas and whores who might have stepped right out of Big Deal on Madonna Street. His Spaniards? Hotblooded! His upper-class English twits in Match Point and Scoop are as off-kilter as his attempts at portraying the lower orders in Cassandra's Dream (in which Ewan McGregor's character memorably declares, "Well, it's been a day of shattered hopes for you, me and Howard") and Blue Jasmine. These are not real people – they're gleaned not from life but from old films or old television.
The Woody Allen role
There is always one of these in the comedies – a witty, cultured, self-deprecating neurotic. It used to be played by Allen himself, but since John Cusack filled in for him in Bullets Over Broadway he has been increasingly casting surrogates. Sometimes the stand-in does a direct impersonation, like Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity; sometimes he adds unexpected shades, like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris; sometimes it's mind-boggling, as when Scarlett Johansson, playing opposite the Woodster in Scoop, seems herself to be mimicking her director and co-star's mannerisms.
The ignorant woman
It's debatable as to whether Allen has written a decent female role since his bust-up with Mia Farrow, though having actors such as Cate Blanchett and Naomi Watts on your team will go a long way towards investing an underwritten caricature with depth. But from Mighty Aphrodite onwards, Allen's women have tended to be ignorant hookers (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, To Rome with Love), ignorant ingenues (Whatever Works), ignorant and needy femme fatales (Match Point) or ignorant and greedy ex-showgirls (Small Time Crooks).
In his new film, Magic in the Moonlight, Emma Stone makes her lower-class character delightful. But she can't tell the difference between Dickens and Shakespeare! Her leading man, of course, will have to teach her. I am not saying female characters shouldn't be ignorant, or greedy, or possess other negative traits. But the women portrayed by Diane Keaton, Farrow and Dianne Wiest in Allen's earlier films are multifaceted individuals who couldn't be more different from the one-dimensional cartoons that came after. Early Allen would have cooked up something magnificent for talented comedians like Rachel McAdams and Greta Gerwig. Late-period Allen wastes them.
The age gap
The one everyone remembers is in Manhattan between Allen and Mariel Hemingway, 26 years his junior. (Revisionism has since decreed their relationship was creepy, though in fact it was quite sweet, and he allowed her to be smarter than him.) But there were 27 years between him and Helen Hunt in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, 32 between him and Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, 33 between him and Debra Messing in Hollywood Ending.
The pattern continues with the surrogates. I have no moral objection to May-September romances, but it strains credibility when the lovely young thing has to fall head over heels for a charmless old codger like Larry David, 41 years older than Evan Rachel Wood in Whatever Works, or an unappealing Colin Firth, 28 years older than Stone in Magic in the Moonlight.
"She knows names, she knows buzzwords, she knows certain cultural phrases that imply that she knows more than she does," Alec Baldwin says of Ellen Page's character in To Rome with Love. We are supposed to despise her, yet this is precisely what Allen himself has been doing from Year One: name-dropping Dostoevsky, Rilke, Faulkner, Heisenberg et al. We're not told anything meaningful about these people or their work; just their names are enough to impress us, allowing us to pat ourselves on the back and chuckle knowingly each time we clock one of the references.
In this respect, Midnight in Paris is the quintessential Allen movie. There are interesting points about nostalgia thrown in and Marion Cotillard looks adorable in flapper gear (as does Stone in Magic in the Moonlight; seeking refuge in the past is another Allen trait), but the bulk of the film is Namedrop Central: "Ah'm Zelda, by the way"; "Some friends have gotten together a little party for Jean Cocteau"; "I was just telling Pablo that this portrait doesn't capture Adriana"; "I was just telling Matisse"; "Look, oh my God, Toulouse-Lautrec!" And so on.