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Woody Allen's Annie Hall explores new dimensions of the persona Allen has constructed in movies, on the stage, and even in a comic strip. We're all familiar by now with "Woody," the overanxious, underachieving intellectual with the inept social life. We've watched him develop from bits in a stand-up comedy routine to a fully developed comic character in the tradition of Chaplin's tramp or Fields's drunk. We know how "Woody" will act in so many situations that we're already laughing before the punch line. Maybe nobody since Jack Benny has been so hilariously predictable.
And yet there's always the realization that "Woody" is a projection of a real Woody Allen. That beneath the comic character is a certain amount of painful truth. That just as W.C. Fields really was a drunk, so Woody Allen perhaps really is insecure about his height, shy around girls, routinely incompetent in the daily joust with life.
It's not that the "real" Woody Allen is as hapless as his fictional creation, but that the character draws from life by exaggerating it. Annie Hall is the closest Allen has come to dealing with that real material. It's not an autobiography, but we get the notion at times that scenes in the movie have been played before, slightly differently, for real.
Allen plays Alvy Singer, stand-up comic and incurable combination of neurotic and romantic. He's self-consciously a New Yorker, a liberal, a Jew, an intellectual, a seeker after the unattainable, and an expert at making it unattainable. One of Alvy Singer's problems is that he understands this all so well. He's not a victim of forces beyond his control, but their author.
And one of the problems he keeps providing for himself is the problem of love. He falls in love too easily, to girls who are right for him in all the little ways and incompatible in all the big ones. His girls tend to reflect the stages he's going through. When he's an Adlai Stevenson liberal in the late 1950s, he marries another one. When he's a romantic ten or fifteen years later, he finds another one, a kookier one. His only trouble is that women are people, not stages.
The movie dares to go into this material a little more seriously and cohesively than is usually the case in an Allen film. Annie Hall is a comedy, yes, and there are moments in it as funny as anything Woody has done, but the movie represents a growth on Allen's part. From a filmmaker who would do anything for a laugh, whose primary mission seemed to be to get through the next five minutes, Allen has developed in Sleeper, Love and Death, and this film into a much more thoughtful and (is it possible?) more mature director.
Maybe that's why Annie Hall is called a "nervous romance": because Allen himself is a little nervous about this frankly nostalgic, romantic, and sentimental material. He throws in a few gags (like the hilarious walk-on by Marshall McLuhan) almost to reassure his old fans that all's well at the laugh works. But he wants to do a lot more this time than just keep us laughing. By looking into some of his own relationships, some of his own patterns, he wants to examine how a personality works.
And so there are two Woody Allens here: Our old pal the original Woody, who's given to making asides directly into the camera, and a new Allen who creates Alvy Singer in his own image and then allows him to behave consistently, even sometimes at the cost of laughs. It's this new Woody who has the nervous romance, the complicated relationship with the would-be nightclub singer Annie Hall (played by Diane Keaton with an interesting mixture of maternal care, genuine love, and absolute craziness).
At the end of the affair, we've learned only two things for certain: That enduring relationships are very likely impossible in this time and place (i.e., New York City during Woody Allen's lifetime), and that life without the search for relationships is unthinkable. In the movie, Woody quotes Groucho Marx's statement that he'd never belong to any club that would accept someone like him as a member. Then Allen muses that maybe he should never get into a relationship in which one of the partners is himself. Tricky, isn't it? And in Annie Hall he makes it very funny, and sad, and tricky indeed.