Woody Allen: A Documentary

By Michael Rubino

All Rise...

Judge Mike Rubino needs the eggs.

The Charge

Comedy is easy. Dying is hard.

Opening Statement

Woody Allen is a lot of things: one of film's great auteurs, a legendary comedian, and a prolific yet polarizing figure in the pop culture landscape. If there's one thing he isn't, it's comfortable talking about his movies. After over a decade of writing letters asking permission, director Robert Weide finally talked Allen into sitting down in front of a camera for a documentary about his life and films.

Facts of the Case

Woody Allen: A Documentary is an exhaustive two-part chronicle of Allen's career. After getting kicked out of NYU, Allen began writing jokes for the paper, and then for television comedians. Pretty soon Allen, himself, was a celebrity, showing up on game shows and doing stand-up in nightclubs. His transition into filmmaking, and then becoming an Oscar-winning art house hero, is half hard work and half dumb luck. Yet despite making a film a year for over 40 years, Allen is still unsatisfied; he yearns to make a "great" film before he dies.

Weide's documentary features a chronological look at Allen's filmography, and includes interviews with many of the actors, producers, and collaborators involved (as well as some of Allen's colleagues). The doc, which premiered on PBS, features appearances by Josh Brolin, Dick Cavett, Sean Penn, Martin Scorsese, Chris Rock, Diane Keaton, and more.

The Evidence

I started watching Woody Allen films when I was in middle school. I think my first one was Deconstructing Harry, and from there moved on to Small Time Crooks and Annie Hall. While my classmates were obsessing over American Pie, I was busy trying to understand the references Allen was dropping in Love and Death. His lightning-fast jokes, his pretentious references, and his occasionally artistic sensibilities as a filmmaker appealed to me. It can be frustrating, then, to watch him be so nonchalant about his body of work—something that's been an inspiration to me and many other writers.

Woody Allen is not just an aloof artist, or some humble moviemaker, he's a self-deprecating pessimist on a quixotic hunt for the elusive "great" film. Despite that lofty goal, the way he talks about his working habits leads me to believe he's in no big rush: he works quickly, doing single takes and checking-out on time to go to a basketball game; he doesn't look at his script after he revises it; he produces a film a year in the hopes that the quantity-over-quality theory will lead him to greatness. On the one hand, he sounds like a true artist, unsatisfied with his work and always striving for perfection. On the other hand, he comes off almost too indifferent to ever get there. In the meantime, his fans are the ones that win as Allen churns out movie after movie. Some, like Anything Else or Celebrity, are stinkers. Others, like Annie Hall or Manhattan are masterpieces.

Woody Allen: A Documentary is more than just a list of the director's movies. The first part of the film spends considerable time talking about Allen's early career as a stand-up comic and television celebrity. Weide has dug up plenty of old footage and balances it nicely with interviews and flashbacks to Woody's childhood. After growing in popularity through game show and late night appearances on television, Allen eased into the film business. He appeared in Casino Royale and wrote What's New Pussycat, and quickly learned that if he was going to keep this up he would need total control. The second half, which picks up well into Allen's career, has a little bit more drama to it: a good deal of time on Woody's relationship with Mia Farrow.

Woody's quirky, routine-filled personal life is featured prominently throughout the two-part biography. While the scandal involving Soon-Yi is certainly Allen's low point, little is said about it from a first-hand perspective. The director doesn't try to explain himself, and most of the story comes out through various news footage—which is handled with a nifty split-screen effect. The rest of his anecdotes, about growing up in New York or working the night club circuit, are charming and average.

Robert Weide (who has also directed episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm) spent over a year and a half following Woody Allen around. His time paid off. The sheer amount of footage, celebrity interviews, and analysis from film critics, elevates this beyond the usual A&E biography. This is by far the best look at Allen's career I've seen. It's also the most personal, which, given Woody's secrecy, is quite a feat.

The standard definition release comes in a two-disc set. The transfer looks great, and the 5.1 surround sound mix is more than necessary. The release even comes with a slew of deleted scenes, a Q&A session with Allen, and an interview with Weide.

Closing Statement

Woody Allen: A Documentary is a must see for fans of the prolific filmmaker. It not only touches on most of Allen's films, but adds insight into his character, his philosophy, and his personal life. Few filmmakers get this kind of treatment, but then again, few deserve it.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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