Once again and with little fanfare, Woody Allen has released his latest foray into a world that no longer exists; that is, of course, if it ever did to begin with. From the improbably articulate to the impossibly expressive, Woody’s characters speak, act, and self-analyze as only they can, which is a kind way of saying like no one you’re ever likely to meet. And yet, I am always fond of these people and their desperation, as the New York they inhabit is so outrageously fictionalized as to be a parody of what an outsider might believe it to be. But as you watch the neurotic and the damned discuss long-dead composers who haven’t sold a record in decades, if not centuries, or eat wildly elaborate dinners while comparing obscure playwrights to even more obscure poets, it hits you with a rush that above all, Woody Allen is one of our last remaining misanthropes. After all, these damaged souls aren’t conversing because Woody likes to show off his knowledge of highbrow culture, but rather because it is his firm belief that such conversations exist so that their speakers can hide from their genuine desires and fears. In the same way that people cling to religion because they’d rather not confront death’s finality, they also immerse themselves in theories and abstractions to keep insecurities at bay. As such, pretty much everything we do is a pathetic escape from the implications of our existence.
Perhaps, then, Woody is that rare bird — the anti-intellectual intellectual; the man who knows his subject because he has flirted with its particulars and came away wanting. As he has said on numerous occasions, both in the movies and in real life, “the heart wants what it wants,” which is more than a justification for bad behavior; it also serves notice that in the end, Woody just wants to be happy, while also realizing the impossibility of that goal. He’d rather be nursing a beer while watching the Knicks (think of his solitary retreat at the gathering of snobs in Annie Hall), but he’s far too smart to embrace mindless abandon. So, and in predictable fashion, his movies — especially Melinda and Melinda — are a product of self-loathing, where his scenes drip with contempt and sarcastic rage, but without a trace of self-righteousness. These are the people he knows, and perhaps even loves in his own twisted way, but we are meant to find them repellant and cold, even while chuckling with delight.
From the outset, a delightful question is asked by two writers in a restaurant — is the essence of life comedic or tragic? Given Woody’s personal philosophy, we have a good idea where the director falls, but it becomes obvious that as each “side” plays out, there really isn’t that much difference between the two. Many critics have been wrong to suggest that it is impossible to tell the two stories apart, for at the very least, all the characters but Melinda (Radha Mitchell) are different. The drama features Laurel (Chloe Sevigny), Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), and Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor); while the comedy has Hobie (Will Ferrell) and Susan (Amanda Peet). If lines are blurred, there is intent and purpose, not lazy writing. Even if love is found, which serves to uplift, it is tempered by the knowledge that it is but a temporary reprieve from life’s bitter sting. In this world — as in ours — relationships begin only to end, for nothing is truly eternal. Every smile and every laugh must eventually give way to pain, suffering, and death. Woody’s perpetual theme of “chronic dissatisfaction” is simply too much to allow joy to stick around. And just at the moment we think we have found the one true love, our heads are turned by what appears to be a better opportunity. In that sense, the whole damn thing is tragic, as laughter fades and sorrow endures.
If we continue to embrace Woody Allen (and increasingly, fewer and fewer do), it is because he is like an old shoe; battered, rough around the edges, and even a little stale, but comforting and impossible to throw away. Human beings are deplorable and self-destructive, and Woody has never wavered from that belief; at times, he’s emulated it. And life’s great puzzle is that despite knowing that life will always manage to let us down and that pleasure is fleeting, we are pathologically incapable of leaving it. Even those who speak of spending eternity bathed in God’s sweet glow will go to superhuman lengths to hang on just a moment longer. Is that instinct? Evolution’s imperative? Or perhaps the old adage that we prefer the shit storm we know to literally anything we don’t? Consider the tragic Melinda’s suicide attempts (both onscreen and off). Despite claiming to be burdened to the point of utter hopelessness, she remains firmly planted on the ground, quite alive if not fully well. As we know, “attempts” are merely half-assed wails of narcissism; recognitions that life is largely unendurable, but not so much that it must be ended without the possibility of changing one’s mind. Tragic Melinda, then, is vintage Woody; bemoaning the world’s injustice, but powerless to really have any kind of impact. Suicide, then, is a revolutionary act because it violates what we all know is the unrelenting pull of survival. Part of me believes that Geraldine Page’s character in Interiors — one of the few to succeed in ending her life — is, for Woody, quietly heroic. At least she carried something through.
Melinda and Melinda also argues that it is the end of passion that is the most tragic realization of all. Passion for one’s significant other is certainly part of that equation, but as significant is the loss of passion for one’s work or play. Whenever Hobie, Al, Susan, or Laurel discuss how they choose to earn their bread, there is a curious lack of cheer; almost as if they long ago realized that they have no other choice. They perform, or write, or design out of habit, not because they have anything substantive to contribute. Conversely, when Laurel plays piano with Ellis, it is a gesture of love, and for one of the few times in the film, her eyes come alive with possibility. Or consider Melinda’s spontaneous duet with the hunk on the street; that very moment seems to wipe away whatever sorrow she might have thought was her lot. These brief snippets can be, upon reflection, quite moving, for they speak to what we know to be true — life is a colossal waste of time and little more than a nightmare, but we go on solely for these moments, even if we must wait years between experiences. It’s no different, really, than the drug addict who chases that first high, or the bizarre ritual of sex. All that for a few seconds of bliss? Logic to the wind, my friend — it’s unavoidable.
So is this Woody’s grand comeback; his retreat from frivolity and banality to more meaningful territory? In some ways, yes, although I doubt he’ll ever fully commit to his past masterworks. Deconstructing Harry, one of the most delightfully mean-spirited films of recent years, interrupted a tide of irrelevance, so perhaps there’s hope for the future. In the end, Woody is always going to say the same things about life and love; sprinkling his tried-and-true stories with one-liners and insightful aphorisms. So what triumphed at the end — tragedy or comedy? As expected, there is another answer, and human beings, puffed up with their vanity, pettiness, and self-pity, must confront it sooner or later and act accordingly. Reunited with our “hosts” at the end, they discuss the man who went to the doctor, received clearance that his heart was healthy and strong, and subsequently dropped dead from a heart attack. The only real tragedy of that scenario is the failure to laugh at its inherent absurdity. Here one minute, gone the next — the one endurable truth.