Woody Allen is a great talent who has used his talent to hide his unwillingness to plumb the depths of his ideas. Unfortunately, he is witty enough to do this, and as a result the promising concepts of his features remain little more than gimmicks; having devised some sort of high-minded point, he feels content to coast on it, coming up with plot developments more akin to sketch comedy tags than conscious observations and insights. At the sight of good natured characters and witty barbs, most audiences are sufficiently charmed enough not to ask hard-hitting questions of Allen’s narratives or stylistic choices. The gimmick premise is usually something that can be easily stated in a sentence or two; Crimes and Misdemeanors asked “Is there a God?” and Match Point similarly asked “Is morality important if no consequences are visited on the immoral?”. Neither question is an essentially unpromising premise for a film, and exceptional films have been made exploring both by such directors as (Allen’s beloved) Ingmar Bergman or Krzysztof Kieślowski.*
However, the problem is that, having asked these questions, Allen is basically content and reverts back to his standard stylistic tone of lighthearted dismissal. Because of this, the audience is simultaneously given the pleasure of feeling ‘deep’ for having superficially engaged such weighty questions, while never having to truly leave the realm of lighthearted entertainment. This occurs again and again in his films, and Allen is too intensely private an artist to let anything exciting or unexpected occur in his narratives; everything must be clearly delineated and easily diagrammed. The blind rabbi represents the blindness needed to believe in God and so on and so forth. Nothing of the messiness of life is allowed to slip through.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this tendency can be found in his 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo. The film’s premise is a riff on Buster Keaton’s 1924 masterpiece Sherlock Jr., wherein Buster jumps into the movie screen and survives some of the most surreal and symbolically ambiguous sight gags ever conceived. Film is seen there as a means of escape into a different identity, yet the line is heavily blurred. Keaton is exploring the nature of film grammar and his close attention for the basis for the film’s best gag sequences such as when he stumbles through oddly cut stock footage or when a seemingly uninventive car chase ends with a absurd defiance of the laws of physics. Allen meanwhile displays his film within a film as being essentially a play, but with the word “scene” replaced with “reel”.
Allen’s symbolism here is too broad to have any potency. Everything is done in the abstract so that the audience knows exactly what he’s conveying; any seeming tensions or ambiguities are cleared up and sorted out in fairly short order, and the result is unintentionally ironic. The film, which seems to think its about the difference between the messiness of reality and the organized sanitized world of Hollywood cinema, in fact paints a picture of reality just as organized and sanitized as the most unrealistic of Hollywood films. Allen seems to think rough intimations of sordidness (the brothel) and degradation (the domestic abuse) are all that separate reality from Hollywood cinema.
And even these scenes are unconvincing; the brothel women are bizarrely all unengaged and unusually kind to Tom when he comes to them. More disturbingly, the scenes of domestic violence in the film are farcical; Cecilia’s husband speaks with the same mild demeanor, tics, and mannerisms as Woody Allen, and one never feels especially outraged when he’s shown supposedly smacking her around. Allen simply doesn’t possess the imaginative depths to craft anything with the actual ugliness of a real domestic confrontation, but feels he needs to depict it to assert his reality is ‘real’. For any person who has witnessed actual events of this nature, the sequence seems rather heartless and calculated. Not that this is Allen’s intention; he simply doesn’t have the chops or the interest to pull the scene off.
Also, despite constant talk of the Depression and lots of period-clothing, no one in the film ever genuinely wants for money. The period setting seems to be mostly a contrivance to make his characters more sympathetic and his tone more quaint. Would the audience feel as sympathetic to Cecilia if she were a poor and relatively unattractive waitress in the modern era reading a copy of US Weekly, in an actual abusive relationship?** It seems doubtful; they’d be shocked and disturbed. Then they’d walk back to the enchanting textures and comforting trivializations of escapist entertainment like The Purple of Cairo.
*Winter Light goes into both as does Kiesloski’s ten part Dekalog.
**This sort of film has been made, where neither lead is idealized. For a rough sense of what it looks like, take a look at John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence.