In the beginning of the 1990s, there seemed to be a dramatic shift in the way people conceived of Woody Allen. For the first time, Allen found himself bouncing around between studios, but each one he landed at (Miramax, Sony Pictures Classic, Fine Line Pictures) specialized in art-house movies, and each seemed to agree on a release strategy. All of his movies in this period were dubbed “Woody Allen Fall Project” until close to their release date, and were opened in an exclusive run late in December to to build awards buzz before being rolled out slowly in the new year.
Allen’s movies received many awards and nominations during this period and, with the exception of Celebrity, his work was very well reviewed. Throughout the ‘80s, people struggled to classify Allen, but now they had decided: he was an art-house director. Critics and award-givers followed suit by heaping praise on him, and audiences treated Allen’s movies the same way they treat most art-house movies: by not watching them.
Yet, that art-house classification, unanimous as it might have been, seems to clash with the actual movies he was making. His movies had never been so broad, accessible and star-studded. Movies like Bullets Over Broadway and Sweet and Lowdown would seem to be all things to everyone, yet were treated by critics and audiences alike with great austerity.
The movies Allen wrote and directed in this period differed wildly in content, but were consistent in tone and quality. All of his movies were funny, but none were goofy; all of them were insightful, but none of them were depressing.
Who was Woody Allen in 1999?
Woody Allen was still making the movies he wanted to make, but they no longer felt personal. Almost all of his films touched on themes that were close to Allen, but none plumbed emotional depths the way Husbands and Wives, Crimes and Misdemeanors, or even Stardust Memories did.
Woody Allen, perhaps for the first time, seemed like a director who really wanted to entertain people. He wasn’t above filling his movies with sex, movie stars, gangsters, murder mysteries, musical numbers, broad humor, and lurid melodrama. Almost all of his previous movies (including even his early comedies) seemed to have been made in part by Allen for himself, but from 1993 to 1999, his work was mostly devoid of self-indulgence. For a man who had grown so aloof in the 1980s, by 1999 he seemed to want little more than for you to have a good time at his movies.
1993-1999: Top 5 Favorite Performances
Sean Penn, Sweet and Lowdown
In this period, Sean Penn sort of wins by default by being the only lead character that’s neither Woody Allen nor someone imitating Woody Allen. Still though, Penn’s performance is phenomenal, and perhaps even the single best male performance in all of Allen’s repertoire. Sean Penn transforms himself into a man who is both a genius and a fool — a fidgety, goofy eccentric who’s also one of the world’s greatest musicians. Penn is very funny without making concessions to accessibility — it’s a testament to his performance that Emmet Ray is a guy who no one really likes, but this movie about him is so much fun.
Samantha Morton, Sweet and Lowdown
Samantha Morton, as a mute laundress, turns the fact that she can’t talk from a disability into a gift. Instead of overcompensating, Morton creates a character who listens and watches, and uses her silence as a shield against sadness. Her confidence and savvy is what allows her to be the only woman that can put up with Emmet Ray.
Dianne Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway
Wiest’s Helen Sinclair is like a hyperbolic Norma Desmond — someone for whom every waking moment is one of immense drama and great theatricality. Wiest’s willingness to go flamboyantly over the top is surprising, and entertaining.
Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite
Unlike Sean Penn or Dianne Wiest, who were backed by strong writing, Sorvino was stuck in a fairly retrograde stereotype, but redeemed it with a deft comic touch. Her unflappable high spirits, open face and squeaky voice made it feel okay to laugh along with (and at) her.
Chazz Palminteri, Bullets Over Broadway
I mentioned a lack of diversity in the leading roles, but this period featured an overwhelming assortment of scene-stealing supporting characters. Edward Norton and Tim Roth in Everyone Says I Love You, Jennifer Tilly and Tracey Ullman in Bullets Over Broadway, Anjelica Huston in Manhattan Murder Mystery, Dom DeLuise in Don’t Drink the Water, Leonardo DiCaprio and Charlize Theron in Celebrity, and Billy Crystal in Deconstructing Harry all come to mind, but Palminteri’s gangster poet is the one that sticks with me the most. Tasked with being believable as a mobster, then as a playwright, and then as a mobster again, Palminteri pulls it off by exuding both intelligence and menace.
1993-1999: Top 5 Favorite Scenes
“No one calls the fucking cops!” — Celebrity
There are few comic conventions as tried and true as the nerd out-of-place amongst the cool kids, and Celebrity is a movie that takes this formulaic set-up to its darkest extremes. The cool kids are angry, twisted and dead inside, yet the nerd is all-the-more desperate for acceptance, making him so pathetic it’s no longer cute. Celebrity wanders off-track a bit in its too-long running time, but its strengths are distilled into a 10-minute interlude featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as a seething mad-dog movie star and Kenneth Branagh as a simpering journalist trying to pitch a bland-sounding screenplay. DiCaprio is ceaseless intensity, lashing out in all directions at all times and seemingly unable to focus on anything for more than ten seconds. Yet, when it comes to the one thing that Branagh is supposedly there for — his writing — DiCaprio is somehow superior, effortlessly and convincingly pointing out flaws in his dialogue and character development.
“He’s going to want to kill you. Do you have a problem with that?” — Manhattan Murder Mystery
The scene in which Diane Keaton, Woody Allen, Anjelica Huston and Alan Alda sit down and discuss a plan to ensnare their murder suspect is a microcosm of all the things that make Manhattan Murder Mystery such a good movie: it’s four likeable, interesting, witty people trying to solve a mystery that’s genuinely exciting, in a trashy novel sort of way. They’re neither a step ahead or a step behind the audience — they’re piecing things together just as we are. The way they set up the details of their final, concluding master-plan is so well-done, you’d think Woody Allen had been making thrillers his whole career.
“My Baby Just Cares For Me” — Everyone Says I Love You
I admitted to a lack of enthusiasm for musical numbers in my review of Everyone Says I Love You, but the ones that work as pure comedy are undeniable. It has haphazard, trainwreck choreography and spastic dancing that would be cringe-inducing in a dinner-theatre production, but are deliberately anarchic and hilarious enough here that I’m sure Groucho Marx would’ve been proud.
“I’m a big star, I deserve a big entrance” — Sweet and Lowdown
Emmet Ray is equal parts frustrating and endearing, which is embodied in the movie’s comic centrepiece. Emmet arrogantly insists that he deserves a spectacular welcome, and bosses people around trying to set it up. But on opening night, it goes so hilariously, spectacularly wrong, you can’t help but sort of like him.
“You have air conditioning?” “Sure, it fucks up the environment” — Deconstructing Harry
Hell is by far the funniest of Deconstructing Harry’s many detours. It has lavish set design that makes it look like a different, more expensive movie, and some genuinely hilarious one-liners (amidst some lame ones) courtesy of Billy Crystal as a laid-back devil. At the time, I criticized Allen’s over-use of certain songs, but I have to admit: “Sing Sing Sing” is definitely the right song for this particular version of Hell.
1993-1999: Top 5 Overall Movies
Bullets Over Broadway
Of all the eras, this is the one that, for me at least, has the clearest #1. Bullets Over Broadway is one of Woody Allen’s most perfectly and precisely executed movies that’s funny, exciting, and smart.
Sweet and Lowdown
A masterful character study that’s like a funnier, livelier Another Woman, Sweet and Lowdown is equal parts comedy, fantasy and musical. Serious issues and meticulous craftsmanship occasionally make themselves known, but the movie never takes itself too seriously, and never ceases to be entertaining.
Manhattan Murder Mystery
Manhattan Murder Mystery was something very fresh from Allen — his first movie to seamlessly combine his honed directorial chops with mad-cap, one-liner comedy. He continued to dabble in both dramatic and comedic worlds throughout the ‘90s, but Manhattan Murder Mystery’s mix of suspense, comedy, and character development was an exciting mix.
I realize this is a controversial pick, and yes, I’m aware of how beloved Everyone Says I Love You and Deconstructing Harry are in many circles, but something about Celebrity grabbed me. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I found it visually stunning and amusingly cynical, with a consistency in tone and comic voice that was absent from Deconstructing Harry. I also didn’t think Kenneth Branagh’s performance was irritating as everyone else apparently did.
Mighty Aphrodite walks a fine line between “edgy” and “icky” — it features eyebrow-raising explicitness, questionable gender/class politics, and Woody Allen pairing himself up with two woman whose combined ages do not equal his own. So it’s a testament to how funny the movie is that it actually ends up being a pleasant, light-hearted experience.