Who is Woody Allen?

By David Couldrey

I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes.  It involves Russia.’  So said Woody Allen and one is reminded of the quote after watching this documentary.  Robert Weide, the director, faces an impossible task in cramming all of Allen’s prolific oeuvre in to a single feature length picture.  That it was originally a two part film for the US TV network PBS hardly makes this surprising.  Nor was it ever likely to be other than complimentary given that it was made for the American Masters series.

Nevertheless, the movie does manage to give an overview of the work (to date) of a true giant of American cinema.  Although the film does jump around a bit chronologically we begin, naturally enough, with Allen’s upbringing in 1940s Harlem.  Born Allan Stewart Konigsberg to working class parents, by seventeen he was writing jokes for newspapers and making more than both of them.  Allen himself, now 76, shows us around the streets in which he grew up and speaks with fond nostalgia of the impact that his local cinema had on him.

An impressive and slightly dizzying assortment of stars are happy to offer admiring endorsements for the man.  Among others we hear from John Cusack, Chris Rock, Larry David, Martin Scorsese, Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson, Diane Keaton, Sean Penn and Owen Wilson.  The film is keen to highlight Allen’s directorial skill of getting the best out of his actors and the number of them who have won gongs under his direction attests to this.   

Allen himself has been nominated for 23 Oscars over the years but has never acknowledged awards, labelling them ‘favouritism’.  He repeatedly comes across as a man with artistic sensibilities and his work does confront big topics – sex, death, love, faith – but always with a wildly irreverent sense of humour.  Unfortunately, this documentary too often fails to translate Allen’s own comic talent and occasionally feels like a premature obituary or a cheerleading eulogy concentrating as it does on relentlessly relating his CV.

Anyone seeking salacious gossip about his private life will be disappointed.  The film skims over the episode of Allen embarking on a romantic relationship with his partner Mia Farrow’s then 20-year old adopted daughter but does emphasize the importance of the women in his life.  The roles he has written for his leading ladies and the relationships he has forged with them have been central to his work.  Penelope Cruz even goes as far as saying that ‘he has written some of the best female characters of all time.’

Hyperbole or not, it is hard to deny that Allen is a cornerstone of modern cinema and this documentary reflects his body of work – flabby with good bits.  Allen jokes in the film that he has ‘been working on the quantity theory’; that if you make enough films, a few will turn out to be good.  Unfortunately, a few will also turn out to be turkeys.  At 76, he shows no signs of slowing down and must surely have time for a couple more of both.

woody collage