“There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ‘em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly. The… the other important joke, for me, is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud’s “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,” and it goes like this – I’m paraphrasing – um, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.”
What makes Annie Hall so special? It is not revolutionize the industry, or change the way people view films. It did not experiment with various camera techniques or expand audiences’ minds with new concepts. What it did do was have heart, by the bucket load. That sounds cliché but that is really what it has going for it. Well, that and sharp, witty, dialogue, combined with endearing narration from the writer-director-star, Woody Allen.
The film tells the story of Alvy Singer (Allen), a moderately successful and highly neurotic comedian who lives in New York. He walks its streets with an ambivalence that is broken up by his devotion to movies and his disdain for his intellectual inferiors, which is practically everyone, atleast in his opinion.
But this pattern of floating through life is disturbed when, while playing tennis, he meets the titular Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). Annie is a younger naïve, less cynical, woman that shares Alvy’s neurosis but lacks his general contempt for others. Most importantly though, she is right for Alvy at his current stage of life.
Alvy is a strange character. Of course, he is still a Woody Allen alter-ego that is always present in an Allen film, but he is more complete than most of Allen’s other characters. He lives as his own entity, and although he shares some of the same qualities as his real-life counterpart, he is his own man.
Alvy is not burdened by the constant need to tell jokes. He does do this, because he is a stand up comic, but he does so as Alvy, not Allen. Jokes told are not for the audience’s benefit, but for the characters to which he is speaking. Of course the trademark “camera aside” narrative that is a constant mechanism of Allen films is present, but even these are used less to humour the audience and more to allow us to understand just who Alvy is.
This is what makes this film different. The audience is given Allen’s deadpan neurosis, humour, and general wittyness, without having to sacrifice the character development and depth that some of Allen’s other work is missing.
As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that Alvy has outgrown the stage in his life in which Annie is right for him. More importantly Annie outgrows the stage in her life where the corrupting force of Alvy is right for her.
While in California, hoping to advance her career beyond singing in nightclubs, Annie comments to Alvy that it is clean in LA. A simple enough suggestion, but it is met with an archetypical Alvy line, “That’s because they don’t throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows.” Alvy is a cynical man, incapable of letting the small details go, and even more incapable of seeing the bigger details.
This is perhaps the reason that women are perfect for him based on stages of his life, rather than matters of character. The big things that should draw people together are apparitions to Alvy, and the idiosyncrasies are mountains.
Ultimately Alvy is impervious to change. He can’t enjoy a nice evening as long as some guy somewhere is starving, and while that may seem noble, it is actually just an excuse for his own neurosis.
Strangely, Alvy does come off as likable. He points an accusing finger at himself and all his shortcomings before anyone else can, and this somehow vindicates the fact that these faults exist. This is what makes Annie, a complete character. Initially she is charmed by Alvy the same way that most are charmed by a moderately self deprecating, witty, person that is able to make them laugh. However, unlike the audience, Annie is forced to deal with this person for more than two hours.
Knowing Alvy Singer would be an exercise in constant frustration. Dating him, as The Social Network might say, would be like dating a stair master. But watching him date, is an exercise in good humour and heartbreaking honesty.
Annie Hall is a rare film that would be entertaining if it was a radiobroadcast. This is the quality of Allen’s writing and a testament to the delivery given by himself and Keaton.