I was surprised by the warmth of Annie Hall, though I’ve seen enough Woody Allen movies at this point that I shouldn’t have been. It has all those things you expect in a Woody Allen movie — the hyperverbosity, the focus on the absurdities of human behavior, the sharp observational humor, and I think that might be because it’s the first Woody Allen film that really establishes the template for what comes after.
Annie Hall is a quasi-autobiographical account of his relationship with the titular woman, though I’ve read here and there that it’s actually based on the film’s star, Diane Keaton. If that’s true, then she’s a tremendously good sport about having the rise and fall of an entire romance fictionalized and thrust out there for the world to see. Allen himself vehemently denies that his romance to Keaton has anything to do with anything, though, and he’s just writing what he knows. I think the rumor persists precisely because Allen seems to wear his heart on his sleeve in his writing, that his movies — no matter how exaggerated or farcical — end up feeling intimate because people and their innermost thoughts are always at their core. It’s hard to imagine someone writing so deeply without having lived it.
Here, a stand-up comic named Alvy Singer is a stand-in for Allen. They share the same birthday, Singer uses the same jokes that Allen did when he was a beginning comic, and they come from roughly the same background. Still, when Singer’s early life is dramatized so we have an understanding of where his neuroses come from, there’s so much that’s so outlandish it’s hard to believe he’s being literal. When he mentions that his apartment was underneath a subway, what we see is so surreal that it’s a genuine surprise when he comes back to it later on as an adult. Holy shit, you think, that’s an actual thing.
There’s a wonderful tension in that, where surprises are lurking in every scene, where you’re not quite sure what’s actually happening and what’s a flight of fancy. What starts out as a riff on a common-enough frustration — a know-it-all knowing it all very loudly behind you in line — ends with the subject of the argument (Marshall McLuhan, a prominent cultural academic at the time) coming out to tell the guy directly that he’s just wrong. A scene where Alvy and Annie grope awkwardly in conversation suddenly comes with subtitles that spell out the subtext in each comment. Allen throws everything at the wall to see if it sticks, and what’s amazing is that nearly everything does. Each scene is a delight, and I’m really impressed that he could sustain that for most of the movie.
The overriding theme, of course, is how people fall into and out of love. We watch Annie and Alvy through their first meeting, their gradual intertwining into each other’s lives, and the protracted, messy disconnection that happens long after the relationship ends. It’s a bittersweet affair; we know exactly why Annie and Alvy are so great together, and why they’re ultimately not quite right for each other. By the end of the film, when Alvy picks over the wreckage of their relationship, we’re right there with him, sympathizing, going back to try and figure out what happened. Ultimately, we simply have to do what he does. We shrug, take the lessons that we can, and trust that our wounds will stop bleeding all over the sidewalk in time.
Even though so much of the movie deals with the break-up, we never once are encouraged to take sides. Annie can be incredibly frustrating, but she’s always understandable. Through the worst of their affair, there’s a deep and abiding love there that never goes away.
And that’s ultimately what makes Annie Hall (and most other Allen movies) so warm. Even when he’s pointing out the absurd behavior of the people around him, or when he’s hiding behind the glasses of a nebbish misanthrope, we can see through his writing that above all, Woody Allen loves people — all of their messy contradictions, the inexplicable behavior, the wild variety of personalities and opinions. His best scenes are those where people have settled down somewhere private and just talk to each other about all the things that only seem to come up after a long night. You walk away with the tingle that comes with meeting someone you find really special. Allen’s able to draw that quality out of all of his characters, even the ones who may or may not be stand-ins for the people who have broken his heart.
Before Annie Hall, Allen was known primarily for farces and broad comedies. There’s definitely a farcical sensibility that runs through the movie, but it’s grounded by the weight of Alvy’s relationship with Annie, and afterwards the hopeful melancholy that comes with putting that relationship to rest. There should be a word for that kind of feeling, the one you get where you look on an incredibly difficult time and recognize the wisdom it gave you. Then I would be able to sum up Annie Hall in just one word. But it looks like several hundred will have to do.