This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
If it weren't already clear as to where Woody Allen stands on the current debate of film vs. TV, you'd just need to sit through an episode of his new Amazon series, "Crisis in Six Scenes." In the six-part venture available on Friday, the writer/director also stars as an insignificant novelist named Sidney in the 1960s who is now slumming it by pitching a TV show. His character later refers to the project as "that idiotic television thing" and even his barber (Max Casella) agrees that TV isn't as highbrow compared to his bad novels, but suggests that Sidney should let himself be "humiliated all the way to the bank." This low standard for TV informs the entirety of “Crisis in Six Scenes,” which is for Woody Allen completists only. In an ugly, miserable relationship, the narrative requirements of TV hate him back by reducing his masterful skills of character, dialogue and pacing to staggering weaknesses.
Continuing Allen's parallels with author Philip Roth, the series is like a rinky-dink American Pastoral, sharing the novel's prevalent themes of a revolutionized 1960s America, a dysfunctional household, and a young woman who shatters everyone's life with her radicalism. The thin plot involves Allen's Sidney character receiving an unexpected visit from a family friend's daughter, Lennie (Miley Cyrus), who is hiding from the cops after committing domestic terrorism. While at the home of Sidney and his marriage therapist wife Kay (Elaine May), she starts to intrigue another family friend, John Magaro’s uptight Alan, who is set to marry his fiancée Ellie (Rachel Brosnahan). Lennie gives Alan and Kay some Communist literature that widens their political perspectives in ways Allen likes to joke about—the punchline being in privileged capitalists becoming unwittingly radicalized—which has Alan falling for Lennie, and Kay talking lovingly about Mao and Marx with her book club (which includes actresses like Joy Behar).
Particularly by the first episode’s anticlimactic cliffhanger, the initially intriguing element of seeing a modern Allen placed in the period that his career started in soon fades. It becomes apparent that Allen has made a 140-minute show, but not focused on what gives a series its oxygen—characters. He relies instead on the same amount of plot you’d get from an 85-minute script, filled with lots of wasted gabbing. As the pacing gets worse, you start to see how characters bicker for longer than usual about nothing, or how everything seems aimed to lose a few minutes here while debating whether to get out of bed, or a few seconds there to talk about clam chowder.
Allen embodies this with his own character, who spends a lot of time on-screen but has very little arc. Like the people he shares numerous empty exchanges with, he only becomes more and more slippery—never more interesting. Other performances suffer, like intriguing turns from Elaine May and John Magaro, the latter offering an amusing wink playing a character named Alan whose plans blow up in his face. But grating performances, like from Miley Cyrus’ very turgid line-reading, become even worse. Allen’s revealing failure is in treating TV narratives as merely a longer-than-feature runtime to be stretched out, instead of offering the scope and depth of characters that makes TV viewers invested. This is certainly a show made by a film director who still thinks like his character Alvy from 1977's "Annie Hall," who spoke about how people in Beverly Hills don't throw away their garbage—“they turn it into television shows."
There's an air of irritated obligation that can be felt in every single shot of “Crisis of Six Scenes.” It’s in how each scene plays out with the longest take possible, showing off capable improvisation far more than nuanced character; in how when two people have their own medium shots during a flat conversation they’re connected with a call-and-response energy. Though Allen is no stranger to this type of straightforward directing, he allows TV to make it look entirely plain; vindictively knocking us back from the work of previous cinematography collaborator Vittorio Storaro and his sumptuous “Café Society” cinematography to Eigil Byrd’s point-and-shoot work here, the series is further transparent in its anti-inspiration. It’s the production design by Carl Sprague that offers any type of texture, with great pieces of furniture and costuming in Sidney and Kay's house, providing what character this series often never has.
But there is an unfortunate nature to this transparent crisis. In 2015, when Allen talked about the project at Cannes he called it “a catastrophic mistake.” That quote essentially functions as the project's thesis, from a filmmaker who is no stranger to off-films or shoulder-shrugging titles for them ("Whatever Works," "Anything Else") but has never felt before like he’s merely trying to make a product. Though it may have helped Allen get financing from the streaming giant for his current film projects, “Crisis in Six Scenes” is a definitive waste of existence, for its talent and its audience. I’m certain that Allen would be the first to agree with me.
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