It has been said (by myself among others) that every Woody Allen movie is someone’s favorite Woody Allen movie. This is an effective way of alluding to his diverse appeal, although, taken literally, it’s somewhat inaccurate. Allen’s filmography is littered with indifferent movies that are neither great nor terrible — just mediocre and forgotten. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy is our first encounter with a Woody Allen film so bland, it’s hard to imagine anyone caring enough about it to form any sort of strong opinion.
First, allow me to clarify some misconceptions you might have developed based on the title: this is not, except in the loosest way, based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is also not a sex comedy. Although, to its credit, it does at least seem to take place in mid-summer.
The title’s inaccuracy is not exactly the worst thing in the world, just an egregious case of false advertising. What’s much worse is that, in addition to not being a sex comedy, it’s not a romantic comedy or a romance either. It’s a drama, I guess, by default, although it’s not very dramatic.
This film contains much of the same romantic mixing, matching and mix-ups that made up Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and makes a few references to its supernatural/dream elements, but that’s about it. More explicitly, this film is inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night — making this the second straight Woody Allen movie to be based on another film. It doesn’t borrow the plot, but the light-hearted tone (by Bergman standards, at least), several of the characters and the time-period (turn of the 20th century) are all lifted.
The plot is extremely simple: six people (three couples) get away for a weekend in a remote cabin. Although their intention is to relax, romantic and sexual complications arise. Those six people are: Andrew (Woody Allen), a Wall Street accountant and inventor; his sexually repressed wife Adrian (Mary Steenburgen); Leopold (Jose Ferrer), Adrian’s uncle and an esteemed University professor; Leopold’s sexually adventuresome fiance Ariel (Mia Farrow), who Andrew once dated; Maxwell (Tony Roberts), a perpetually horny doctor, who is also Andrew’s best friend; and Dulcy (Julie Hagerty), Maxwell’s nurse and friend with benefits (they don’t actually use that term).
The plot is as elaborate as it is irrelevant. Every character falls in love with at least one other person than the person they came with, and there are a wide variety of interludes, secret meetings, bold declarations, fights, and heart-break. One character also dies (of a heart attack, during sex), another gets shot with an arrow, and there is even a (half-hearted) suicide attempt.
It would be very reasonable for you to assume that this plays out through a serious of mistaken identities, near-misses, slapstick set-pieces, rising and falling comic tension, etc. But you would be wrong. It plays out through a lot of dry, statically filmed conversations. Most shockingly of all, Woody Allen himself does not tell a single joke throughout the entire film.
It may seem unfair to pick on the movie for being unfunny, but I should point out that I wouldn’t have a problem with that if it were more romantic, or more dramatically interesting. The characters talk endlessly about who they want to be with and make all kinds of elaborate plans to meet behind each others’ back, but we don’t really know anything about them. There’s so much plot, we don’t get any moments to actually get to know the people we’re supposed to care about.
The movie is also filled with bizarre developments that derail any potential momentum. At one point, Maxwell decides he’s so in love with Ariel, that he tries to commit suicide when she initially rejects him. It’s a very strange development — why would a relaxed, free-wheeling playboy get up in the middle of dinner and shoot himself in the head after a woman he just met wasn’t immediately interested in him? Furthermore, don’t you think someone trying to commit suicide (by gunshot, no less) would be a fairly traumatic occurrence during a weekend getaway at a cabin? I would, but the characters in this movie pay it no mind.
There’s also the small matter of Andrew (Woody Allen)’s career as an inventor. He has invented a “spirit ball” that communicates with the spiritual world, and in several scenes rides around on a flying bicycle he’s made. As stand-alone scenes these are effectively whimsical, but they’re confusing and incredibly awkward in this particular movie, which is otherwise quite dry.
I don’t want to make it sound like this movie is terrible or unwatchable. Ultimately, it’s not even that bad. Watching it is an easy, painless experience, but as soon as it’s over, you can feel it merging indecipherably with countless other equally unmemorable Woody Allen films. The best word to describe this film would be “insignificant.”
Looking behind the scenes, however, there is one thing about this movie that is very significant: this is Woody Allen’s first of 13 films with Mia Farrow. Allen had actually wanted Diane Keaton for the role, but she had run off with her new boyfriend Warren Beatty to make Reds.
This is Farrow’s first film with Allen, but only by technicality. Allen’s next film, 1983’s Zelig was already under production, and featured Farrow in a role that was actually written for her. When production was stalled on that film, Allen churned this one out — it was written in two weeks (and filmed in as many months).
Farrow was already an established actress, having starred in Rosemary’s Baby, The Great Gatsby and the TV show Peyton Place. She was also a tabloid fixture thanks to her modeling career and lurid marriage to Frank Sinatra (they married when she was 19 and he was 45). Farrow was 37 in this movie, however, and had left behind her sex symbol days. Not to say she isn’t attractive, but (and maybe this is just me) she has such a delicate, maternal presence in all of Woody Allen’s movies, it’s hard to think of her as “sexy.” Looking at younger photos of her, it’s almost impossible to process how astoundingly chic she once was.
It’s sort of unfortunate this movie beat Zelig to the punch, as it’s an incredibly unpromising debut for one of American cinema’s greatest pairings. Mia Farrow largely sleepwalks through this movie, making her character’s alleged firebrand sex appeal somewhat puzzling. In fact, she even earned a Razzie nomination for Worst Actress (although she “lost” to pop-star Pia Zadora). Her lazy performance may be more attributable to Woody Allen than Mia Farrow, however, since, by his own admission, he largely viewed this film as a make-work project while waiting for production to resume on Zelig.
The best performance to emerge from this film, I think, is from Mary Steenburgen. Steenburgen (aka Mrs. Ted Danson) is an actress that I mostly know from Back To The Future III and her role as “herself” in Curb Your Enthusiasm, although I now see that she has won an Oscar and played a significant role in a number of blockbusters. She’s the only performer who makes her character into a real person, instead of a mechanical plot device. Her quest to please her husband involves a war against her sweet, conservative nature, which Steenburgen handles with nuance. It’s unfortunate, then, that the late-film revelation (she had an affair with Maxwell) betrays her character somewhat.
Most reviewers felt about the same as me about the film — that it’s not very good. Audiences stayed away as well, and the box-office was much less than even Stardust Memories, which was, itself, considered a bomb. In 1982, it might have started to look like Woody Allen was losing his touch.
A movie with this premise, this title and this cast is crying out for comic energy — something at which Allen has repeatedly proved himself to be an expert, although here he has opted to deprive us of it. As I’ve been saying for a few reviews now: Woody Allen is interested in being serious, and taking you to darker places. But, despite a string of great movies, I found myself, for the first time, thinking about how fun some of his earlier movies were.
- I’m drawing a blank here... which speaks to the blandness of this film.
- This movie’s inspiration (Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night) is also the inspiration for Steven Sondheim’s A Little Night Music
- Mia Farrow’s Razzie nomination is the one and only time anyone in a Woody Allen film has received the “honor.”
- Mia Farrow lost the Worst Actress Razzie to Pia Zadora for the film Butterfly. Weirdly, Zadora won a Golden Globe award for Best Actress for the very same movie.
- This is the first film that uses the now Woody Allen standard credits title card “Cast (in alphabetical order)”
- Woody Allen’s first film with Orion Pictures.