Imitation Woody: A guide to Allenesque movies made by other people

Woody Allen’s sources of inspiration — Bergman, Fellini, Chaplin, etc — are well-known and much discussed. He’s quite upfront and always happy to talk them. People with too much time on their hands (i.e. me) love picking apart all the small and large references to the directors Allen looks up to.

But what about the other direction? People who have been inspired by Woody Allen? In PBS’ documentary about his work, Woody Allen claims he’s had no influence on modern cinema, which struck me as absurd. When I watch movies, I’m constantly seeing his influence.

If I was a real journalist or a writer with some clout, I’d talk to some of today’s screenwriters and directors and ask them how they’ve absorbed and been inspired by Woody Allen’s movies, but since I’m neither of those things, all I can offer is this wildly speculative list of movies upon which I see the faint fingerprints of Woody Allen. Enjoy!


Modern Romance (1981)

Modern Romance poster

There have been many good (and a few great) actor/writer/directors since the silent era, but while they may sometimes cast themselves in a lead or supporting role in their own films, they’ve never built their movies around a pre-existing, larger-than-life persona (one arguable exception being Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky movies). But that was what Chaplin did, and what Keaton did, and what Woody Allen did as well, at least for his first 10 movies or so. Woody Allen then took the next steps, slowly turning his persona into a real human being, and more than that, a source of examination and ridicule.

Albert Brooks, another great actor/writer/director, took the same approach, although he never achieved the fame or ubiquity of Woody Allen. Like Allen, Brooks got his start as a stand-up comedian, which probably helped him generate an understanding of himself as a comic entity.

Starting with Real Life but especially with Modern Romance, Brooks forged a darker, more pathetic variation on Allen’s neurotic intellectual. Brooks is so fearless in his self-deprecation, he makes Allen in Manhattan look fairly heroic by comparison. Like many of Allen’s films, Modern Romance focuses on the ugly parts of human relationships, but unlike Allen’s, it mostly eschews the more pleasant and romantic aspects.

Albert Brooks in Modern Romance

Modern Romance opens with Brooks, playing a successful L.A. movie editor named Robert, breaking up with his girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold). She laughs it off at first, but he insists “I mean it this time.” Robert then attempts to embark on a journey of self-improvement, taking up jogging again, and loading up on a full regiment of vitamins and supplements. All the while, he provides a running commentary on his thoughts and feelings, just like a character in a Woody Allen movie.

Albert Brooks and Kathryn Harrold in Modern Romance
“I just don’t think we should go out anymore.”
“Ok, sure, it’s over again.”
“No, I mean it, this time for real. I just think we’re trapped in a no-win situation... like Vietnam.”
“Okay, fine. So how do you want to do it this time?”
Albert Brooks in Modern Romance
“I’m trying to start a new life, and I think fitness should be a major part of it.”

Instead of improving and renewing himself, though, he’s consumed and paralyzed by jealousy. He becomes obsessed with his now-ex-girlfriend, driving by her house late at night and leaving dozens of frantic messages, trying to figure out what she’s up to. Eventually he gives in and decides to get back together with her, but that doesn’t put an end to his torment. He goes through her phone records looking for calls to potential competition, takes her to parties but won’t let her talk to anyone, and lies to her and tricks her in a series of attempts to find out if she’s been with anyone else.

Albert Brooks in Modern Romance
Albert Brooks in Modern Romance

It may not sound like it, but Modern Romance is definitely a comedy, and a very funny one. It’s ultimately about jealously and insecurity in their most pathetic form, which makes it more focused and single-minded than sprawling movies like Annie Hall or Manhattan, but it shares their unapologetically anhedonic worldview and unhappily-ever-after endings.

Could Modern Romance have existed without Woody Allen? Well, probably, but without Allen and his movies, the world would have been far less prepared for it.

See Also: Brooks’ other directorial efforts — all of which he also wrote and starred in — mine the same, or a similar, comic persona: Lost in America (1985), Defending Your Life (1991), Mother (1996).

Woody Allen Connections: Woody Allen offered the lead role in Deconstructing Harry to Albert Brooks, but Brooks turned it down.


This is Spinal Tap (1984)

This Is Spinal Tap poster

With Love and Death, Hannah and her Sisters, and especially Annie Hall, Woody Allen stumbled across something revelatory: conversations in comedies don’t have to be tightly-wound back-and-forths; they can be loose, rambling, divergent and improvised.

Obviously this approach existed elsewhere — Chicago’s Second City Theater had been performing improvised sketch comedy shows for decades prior to Annie Hall — but Allen applied it to narrative filmmaking in new ways. Diane Keaton recalled showing up to set on Annie Hall and seeing a brand new script page for the first time, or filming a scene with no script at all. Numerous actors since, all the way up to Owen Wilson in 2011, report similar experiences.

I don’t really know much about the actual process of making movies, but I know that the prospect of rolling expensive film through an expensive camera that’s being operated by an Oscar-winning cinematographer with help from dozens of technical crew members and not knowing in advance what you’re going to say must be terrifying, and must seem to others like a recipe for disaster. Most of the crew (including DOP Gordon Willis) would have been used to filming with not only pre-written dialogue, but storyboards and orchestrated camera angles and blocking. Some days on Annie Hall, they had none of this.

The only way you could pull off this approach would be to have great confidence in yourself as a performer, great confidence in your co-stars as performers, and a deep understanding of not only your character and your character’s situation, but a sense of what would be dramatically or comedically interesting in that moment. Allen obviously had these things and the results are, as I said, revelatory. When Allen and Keaton talk in Annie Hall or Manhattan, it’s natural and spontaneous. Conversations don’t necessarily have a functional purpose, like establishing mood or advancing a story, but they let us into the characters’ world and help us feel like we really know them as people.

1984’s This Is Spinal Tap took this approach a step further, and went into production with almost no pre-written dialogue. The actors had their characters loosely defined from the outset, as well as motivations and contexts for each scene, but the actual words from their mouths were ad-libbed. The movie’s humor depended largely on the chemistry between the stars, the guidance of the director and the scrutiny of the editor. The movie’s official credits list all the primary cast-members as the writers.

This is Spinal Tap, as I’m sure you know, is about an aging hair-metal band called Spinal Tap (“England’s Loudest Band”), whose members are played by Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean. They were never very good to begin with, and this movie chronicles their last, desperate attempts to bask in their fading glory.

Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer in This Is Spinal Tap

The scenes of the band planning their shows and being interviewed by Marti DiBergi (a documentarian played by Rob Reiner) are hilarious and spontaneous. The scene in which Christopher Guest tries to explain why his amps go up to 11 is one of the most quoted and, for a lot of people, one of the funniest, moments ever filmed. The movie feels free, and liberated from the considerable constraints of movie-making.

Christopher Guest and Rob Reiner in This Is Spinal Tap
“It’s one louder”

Just like a real documentary, when it comes time for editing, there may be dozens of different ideas to pick and choose from, as opposed to a bunch of slight variations on the same set of lines. Instead of a single writer, dialogue benefits from three or four performers working together to elevate the material.

Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer in This Is Spinal Tap

Rob Reiner is the credited director of This is Spinal Tap, although the movie and its approach have since become more heavily associated with Christopher Guest. After Spinal Tap, Guest went on to direct a number of semi-improvised films, generally re-uniting the same core cast members (Waiting for Guffman, Best In Show, etc).

Knocked Up poster

These days, this approach is pretty much the status quo for Hollywood comedies. Adam McKay and Judd Apatow both swear by ad-libbing and letting performers and cast chemistry carry a heavier burden than the writing. Dramatically, it’s less common.

The breaking point came with the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movement of the ‘00s — films deliberately made, often with camcorders and microscopic budgets, without any kind of pre-planning whatsoever. These movies have their defenders, but the handful that I’ve seen have been painfully dull and awkward. There’s still something to be said for investing some thought into good, strong building blocks.

And of course, Spinal Tap is also inspired by Woody Allen in a different, more obvious way: it is what’s now known as a mockumentary — a fictional film edited and presented as if it was a documentary. The idea of something fake being paraded about as it was real was nothing new, but Allen’s Take the Money and Run was the first full-length film to present a fictional narrative in the format of a documentary. Annie Hall also incorporated elements of documentary (the characters addressed the camera directly), and with Zelig, Allen made an even more innovate, nuanced example of his new sub-genre.

The benefits of the mockumentary are numerous. First of all, ridiculous things are automatically funnier when they’re presented with a straight face as if they’re facts. The genre also provides a narrative short-cut by giving characters the ability to talk with a documentarian or directly to the camera, allowing them to spell out their feelings and stories in a way that might otherwise feel forced or unrealistic. In Take the Money and Run and This is Spinal Tap, the format also allows for improved story-telling, as the narrator (or the “documentarian”) are able to speed through the exposition, leaving more time for jokes and character development.

It’s possible that Reiner and Guest came up with the idea of an improvised documentary on their own, but Woody Allen movies like Take the Money and Run and Annie Hall prevented them from doing it first.

See Also: Loose, heavily improvised movies like Clerks (1994), Anchorman (2004), Knocked Up (2007), Nights and Weekends (2008); fake documentaries such as Real Life (1979), Waiting for Guffman (1997), Best In Show (2003), Borat (2006), The Office (2001-2003; 2005-), Modern Family (2009-).

Woody Allen Connections: Director/co-star Rob Reiner appeared in Bullets Over Broadway; Spinal Tap band-member Michael McKean co-starred in Allen’s Whatever Works.


When Harry Met Sally... (1989)

When Harry Met Sally poster

What did American romantic comedies look like before Annie Hall? There are exceptions, but usually they’re about people who are in love in the most profound way — people who are meant for each other, people who are bound to spend the rest of their lives together, people struggling to overcome external obstacles keeping them from their one true love. We were never supposed to wonder whether Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn were right for each other (or how they’d sort out their Visa issues).

They were also about first kisses, special moments, tearful reunions and silly misunderstandings. They were not about awkward sexual experiences, stupid fights, fears of commitment, or breaking up. Yet Annie Hall is about all of these things, and its characters ultimately decide that maybe they’re just not right for each other. It may have robbed its audience of an opportunity for simple escapism in doing so, but it also moved the genre into a modern era and made a romantic comedy that people could actually relate to. Some would say it was all the more romantic for it, too.

When Harry Met Sally could reasonably be considered Annie Hall’s offspring, with its other parent being a more conventional romantic comedy. Its general arc — couple meets, superficially argues, falls in love, ends up happily married — is borne of more old-school romantic comedies, but the details are messy enough to put a happy ending in doubt, if only momentarily.

Billy Crystal plays Harry, who’s sort of a broader, more accessible version of Allen’s characters in Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and her Sisters. Like Allen, he acts in defiance of romantic comedy conventions by being short and funny-looking. He lacks Allen’s sardonic wit and imposing intelligence, although he’s heavily equipped with an assortment of funny voices and and Maxim-advice-page-worthy insights.

Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally
“You take someone to the airport, its clearly the beginning of the relationship. That’s why I have never taken anyone to the airport at the beginning of a relationship. Because eventually things move on and you don’t take someone to the airport and I never wanted anyone to say to me, ‘How come you never take me to the airport anymore?’”

Imperfect characters are nothing new, but When Harry Met Sally shares Woody Allen’s willingness to have characters who are imperfect for each other. They spend the first 70 minutes of a 90-minute movie as just friends, exchanging only longing glances, awkward kisses and half-hearted come-ons. It hits all the major, mandatory points of a romantic comedy — including an unambiguously happy ending — but makes time in between for some of life’s messier details.

Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally

When Harry Met Sally has a few other traces of Woody Allen outside of its story and characters. It uses Annie Hall’s 4th-wall-violating semi-documentary confessionals, and uses a split screen to portray the two characters talking in different locations. It also has a jazz soundtrack with classic songs that have probably been in at least one Allen movie (and some modern ones that Allen wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole).

Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally
Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally

There’s little doubt that When Harry Met Sally takes some cues from the Woody Allen movies of the preceding decade. While I will admit it’s not really to my liking, it’s as popular and well-known as Annie Hall. People making romantic comedies today are probably just as inspired by When Harry Met Sally as they are by Woody Allen.

See Also: Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), As Good As It Gets (1997), or any other remotely thoughtful romantic comedy since 1980. A few movies I can think of that might have beat Woody Allen to the punch, in terms of showcasing the awkward, unromantic side of romance are Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) and Marty (1955), starring Ernest Borgnine — two movies about mis-matched couples settling for good enough — and Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1971), a love story about two people who are really, truly wrong for each other.

Woody Allen Connections: When Harry Met Sally was written by Nora Ephron, who is a personal friend of Woody Allen and appeared in both Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives as a background character; like Spinal Tap, When Harry Met Sally was directed by Bullets Over Broadway co-star Rob Reiner; Billy Crystal played Satan in Deconstructing Harry eight years later.


Miami Rhapsody (1995)

Miami Rhapsody poster

Of all the movies discussed here, Miami Rhapsody is the one that would most assuredly never exist were it not for Woody Allen. Miami Rhapsody is to Woody Allen what Interiors was to Ingmar Bergman: a clear, up-front attempt by one director to mimic the style of another.

While the other movies discussed so far borrow mostly from Allen’s late-’70s artistic explosion, Miami Rhapsody looks to a quieter, generally less influential period of Woody Allen’s career: his “serious” movies, the straightforward relationship dramas he was making in the late late ‘80s and early ‘90s. There are some jokes, but like Hannah and her Sisters or Husbands and Wives, it’s the characters who are funny, not the movie.

Writer/director David Frankel makes his intentions clear right off the bat. The combination of a Louis Armstrong song, a full credit roll over plain black background, Allen’s trademark title card (“Starring in alphabetical order”), and the presence of Mia Farrow make it pretty clear what’s going on. When the movie actually begins, it does so with a riff on Annie Hall’s opening (protagonist facing camera, recapping love life).

Sarah Jessica Parker in Miami Rhapsody
“I can’t commit to anything. Maybe I have Peter Pan syndrome.”

It ends with another, more blatant Annie Hall reference. The protagonist (still facing the camera) compares love to the city of Miami: “it’s dangerous, and stormy and hot, but if it’s really so terrible, why is there always so much traffic?” That sounds an awful lot like a certain joke about needing the eggs.

In between, it tells the story of 10 or so affluent Miami residents navigating their way in and out of relationships, bemoaning their lack of sexual contact and spilling their life stories to anyone within earshot. It covers a lot of Allen’s favorite topics — infidelity, selling out, jokes about Nazis, etc. As expected, characters talk like they’re in a Woody Allen movie, although they’re from a lower intellectual bracket (if not a lower economic one).

Sarah Jessica Parker in Miami Rhapsody
Sarah Jessica Parker in Miami Rhapsody
“My problem is I’m always trying to run away from my problems.”
“Me too.”
“Well, it was a bit different for you, you were running away from Nazis.”

There’s even a “Woody Allen type,” although in a welcome, if sometimes disorienting, twist, it’s a young woman (Sarah Jessica Parker in one of her first starring roles). Like many of Allen’s characters, she’s a wise-cracking neurotic who has a soul-crushing job but dreams of being a creative artist type. And while Parker comes across as bubbly, easy-going and not particularly burdened by any mental anguish, she makes a lot of jokes about her Jewish guilt.

She has a constant stream of one-liners that sound like ones Allen would deliver — most notably, “it’s mental masturbation, which is my second favorite kind” which I sincerely feel like I’ve heard Allen himself say at some point. Parker probably isn’t the best person to be telling Catskills-style wisecracks, although she gives it her best shot. She doesn’t get much help from the writing — her jokes mostly range from lame (“she’s a model, her breasts explode at higher elevations”) to confusing (“you’re like a nuclear menace, your warhead should be dismantled”), although some are sort-of funny (“I want to never compromise, like Arabs or Republicans”).

Sarah Jessica Parker in Miami Rhapsody

Mia Farrow plays Parker’s mother. It’s strange seeing her in a movie like this and knowing it’s not Woody Allen directing it. Excepting the occassional The Last Unicorn super-fan, it’s unlikely that anyone would have watched Miami Rhapsody and not had Farrow’s presence constantly remind them of Woody Allen’s similar-but-better movies.

Mia Farrow and Sarah Jessica Parker in Miami Rhapsody

As you may have gathered from the poster above, one of the movie’s side-stories involves Antonio Banderas dating both Mia Farrow and Sarah Jessica Parker, who are mother and daughter. Farrow was, in real life, in the midst of an ugly custody battle with Allen at the time and furious at him for dating her daughter. Her character in the movie doesn’t mind as much, maybe because Parker is older and an unambiguously consenting adult, or maybe because Antonio Banderas is just so sexy and charming she can’t stay mad at him.

Miami Rhapsody is unfortunately inspired by some of Allen’s worst traits. Like September or A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, people keep falling in love with each other, but we never get an understanding of why. People talk about themselves constantly, but it’s all blandly expository. No one, other than Parker, emerges as distinct from any of the other characters. Like Hannah and her Sisters it’s long on plot, but like Sex Comedy, it’s short on character.

There’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with imitating another director’s work — I enjoyed Interiors, and even more-so Stardust Memories — but what Miami Rhapsody brought to my attention is that I don’t like Woody Allen movies for their subject matter, but for their wit and insight (not what they’re about, but how they’re about it, as Roger Ebert would say). Without Allen’s brilliant touch for dialogue, characters and humor, the best you can hope for in a romantic comedy is a distracting experience like Miami Rhapsody.

See Also: The Names of Love (2011) was also deliberately made in the style of a Woody Allen movie. Or so I’ve read. I haven’t actually seen it — I missed it in theatres, and it is not yet out on DVD.

Woody Allen Connections: Well, Mia Farrow, obviously; Antonio Banderas was in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger; Co-star Paul Mazursky directed Allen in Scenes From a Mall; Sarah Jessica Parker co-starred with Allen in the TV movie The Sunshine Boys.


The films of Charlie Kaufman

From 1977 to 1985, Allen’s insights into human nature had become so vast, conventional storytelling no longer gave him the tools he needed to disseminate them. He turned, then, to fantasy and science-fiction, genres more typically associated with giddy excitement and somber profundity to help render his commentary on love, art, and life.

In Annie Hall, the space-time continuum is violated so that middle-aged Alvy Singer can gripe directly to his grade-school teachers, or so that he can show Annie, at her current age, exactly what he was like as a kid. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, a handsome movie star walks off the screen and into a lonely woman’s life, but only so she (and we) can be taught a lesson about the emptiness of our existence. In Stardust Memories, the life of a struggling director involves aliens, monsters and resurrection. In Zelig, well, you get the point.

As I’ve said here before, the one contemporary filmmaker who has the most Woody Allen DNA in his work is probably Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman fills his movies with fantastic, surreal and absurd elements, but he’s ultimately interested in the same things Allen is. His movies might not look much like Woody Allen’s on the surface, but they’re identical in spirit.

The biggest difference between the two men’s work is that Kaufman’s movies are crafted with far more care. It often seems like every little idea that pops into Woody Allen’s head is compulsively committed to paper and shown to the world — if not as one of his annual movies, then as a vignette or side-story, a play, a short story, or an essay for New York Magazine. But Kaufman is a new breed of filmmaker, one for whom a screenplay is more akin to a novel, something to be pored over and perfected over several years.

The result is that all of Kaufman’s films are dense, meticulous and ambitious in ways that Woody Allen’s rarely are. Sometimes there’s so much going on it can be overwhelming, and trying to parse his movies’ subject matter can be intimidating.

Being John Malkovich poster

Kaufman’s 1999 debut as a screenwriter, Being John Malkovich (executive-produced by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by his then-son-in-law Spike Jonze), has a lot in common with Allen’s Zelig. Both concern men who desperately want to be other people, supernatural occurrences that allow just that, a dark sense of humor, and a despairing commentary on identity. In Zelig, the titular character (played by Allen) has a medical condition that allows him to physically and psychologically transform into other people; in Being John Malkovich, puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) finds a portal that transports him into the body of John Malkovich.

John Cusack in Being John Malkovich

As in Zelig, the public is transfixed. People line up for a chance to be John Malkovich. Everyone who goes through the portal has a different experience, but all of them find it riveting. People are kicked out of Malkovich’s brain after 15 minutes inside, but eventually Craig figures our how to stay there permanently. He then proceeds to live in Malkovich’s body for years, controlling him like a puppet.

John Cusack and John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich
John Cusack and John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich

One could reasonably argue that Being John Malkovich eclipses Zelig, and is the better of the two movies. I’m honestly not sure where I’d stand, but the fact that it’s close says a lot of Being John Malkovich, as Zelig is one of Allen’s smartest and best movies. Visually speaking, Zelig may have been the more cutting-edge movie for its time, but Being John Malkovich definitely takes advantage of 16 additional years of advancements. The special effects are impressive and seamless, and Spike Jonze, who has a background in music videos and commercials, provides a dryly witty visual style you’d never find in a Woody Allen movie.

Adaptation poster

Three years later, Kaufman re-teamed with Jonze and looked at something that has obsessed Allen for decades: writing. Just like at least a dozen Woody Allen movies, the protagonist of Adaptation is a writer struggling through his latest project and bemoaning the challenges of his craft to anyone who will listen. When Allen writes these characters, people accuse him of basing them on himself, and Charlie Kaufman, perhaps as a way of pre-empting such accusations, gives the lead character the name of Charlie Kaufman.

Adaptation bears a resemblance to a lot of Woody Allen movies, but its closest parallel is probably Stardust Memories. Both films have an angry sense of humor and a protagonist who’s trying to make intelligent movies in a world that wants dumb, formulaic trash.

Nicolas Cage in Adaptation

In Adaptation, that desire for trash is represented by Charlie’s dimwitted twin brother, Donald Kaufman (who doesn’t actually exist in real life). Both Kaufmans are played by Nicolas Cage. Adaptation, which is based on the book “The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean, tells the story of “Charlie Kaufman” (as portrayed by Nicolas Cage) trying to adapt Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief” into a movie.

Nicolas Cage in Adaptation
“My movie’s about a serial killer. He’s an English professor who kills his victims by chopping up little bits of their bodies until they’re dead. He calls himself ‘the deconstructionist.’”

So yes, Adaptation is convoluted, self-referential, and often too clever for its own good. It’s also incredibly funny. Kaufman and Jonze are constantly telling a story on two levels — there’s the immediate narrative, but because the movie is about itself, the film’s contents are being re-written as the movie unfolds. When “Charlie” lets his populist-minded brother Donald start contributing to the screenplay, Adaptation suddenly becomes lurid and ridiculous, with gun fights, car chases, and a surprise alligator attack.

Nicolas Cage in Adaptation

Also, this being a Kaufman screenplay, there are jokes, subplots, asides and interludes for miles. Susan Orlean (played by Meryl Streep) has an affair with the subject of her book which is being adapted. Donald Kaufman imitates Charlie on the set of Being John Malkovich. Charlie Kaufman (the character) delivers a speech on how indulgent it is to write yourself into your own movie. In other words, there’s enough material for at least 10 Woody Allen movies.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind poster

Kaufman’s next project was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2005). Allen-wise, Eternal Sunshine’s closest parallel is Annie Hall. Both films chronicle the relationship between a depressive artist and a quirky, eccentric younger woman, both tell their story out of chronological order, both take time out from their conventional narratives to depict the non-literal, and both end on a bittersweet note. The two films share external details as well: Eternal Sunshine is the most popular, most widely beloved, and most award-winning movie of Kaufman’s, just as Annie Hall is of Allen’s.

Eternal Sunshine is relatively straightforward compared to Being John Malkovich or Adaptation. Its sole metaphysical twist is the existence of a medical clinic that can isolate and delete certain memories. Clementine, the movie’s female romantic lead (Kate Winslet), undergoes this process in order to completely and totally forget about Joel (Jim Carrey) after they break up. When he finds out that she’s done this, Joel decides to do the same.

Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
“Will there be any brain damage?”
“Well, technically the procedure is brain damage...”

As Joel’s memories are erased, the movie takes a sad, funny and visually stunning tour through his brain. Eternal Sunshine contains profound insight into the way we cling to, cherish, and distort memories. There is a sad, haunting beauty to the way Joel recalls a pleasant memory with Clementine only to have it deleted, like the way Allen silently pans through Delores’s prematurely ended life at the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
“Just let me keep this one...”

The ending of the movie, as I mentioned, strikes a bittersweet note that will be familiar to Woody Allen completionists. It ends as Joel and Clementine, having wiped each other from their memories, meet for the “first” time and begin to fall in love, not realizing they’ve done this all before. Like the endings of Annie Hall or The Purple Rose of Cairo, it captures the characters in a moment of happiness that the rest of the movie has taught us will be temporary and fleeting.

Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Synecdoche, New York poster

And finally there’s Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s debut as writer/director (he was solely the screenwriter on the above-discussed films). If there has been one movie in the last 25 years more in line with the philosophical teachings of Woody Allen than Synecdoche, New York, I have not seen it.

Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, Anything Else, Match Point and Midnight In Paris have all been trying to tell us, in one way or another, that the universe is empty, life will always disappoint you, aging is terrifying, dying is even more-so, and all you can really do about it is complain. Often it’s lightened with an addendum along the lines of “so make the most of it while you can,” but sometimes not even that. Allen himself said The Purple Rose of Cairo best represented him as a person, as “I do believe that reality is dreadful and that you are forced to choose it in the end or go crazy, but that it kills you.”

Synechdoche, New York captures this mindset with both the thoughtfulness and insistence of Crimes and Misdemeanors. It’s about yet another writer, this one a playwright named Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who’s embarking on a new project that will tell the story of his life (something that Allen can relate to).

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York
Scene from Synecdoche, New York
“I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t. That’s what I’m trying to explore here.”

Caden’s new production is absurdly ambitious (something that Kaufman can relate to). It involves a life-size replica of New York City, and he hires actors to play him and actors to play the actors hired to play him.

Scene from Synecdoche, New York
Scene from Synecdoche, New York

As Caden’s play progresses, he finds himself learning more about himself — the same kinds of lessons Woody Allen’s character learns in Manhattan. Eventually overwhelmed, Caden hands over the directorial reins to the actress originally hired to play him (none other than Allen regular Dianne Wiest). In his final moments, she stage-directs his death:

Dianne Wiest in Synecdoche, New York
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York
“What was once before you, an exciting future, is now behind you. Lived, understood, disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence and are now slipping silently outward. This is everyone’s experience. The specifics hardly matter. As the people who adore you stop adoring you, as they die, as they move on, as you shed them, as you shed your youth and beauty, let the world forget you. As you learn there is no one watching, and there never was.”

Whether Kaufman is inspired by Allen or if this is just an example of two great minds thinking alike, I can’t say. It’s possible, if not likely, that Kaufman is looking back to the same surrealists that inspired Allen. What I do know, is that Kaufman’s films are the best Woody Allen movies Woody Allen never made.

See Also: Other romantic comedies that incorporate fantastic elements: Big (1988), Groundhog Day (1993), Sliding Doors (1998), Cold Souls (2008), Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010).

Woody Allen Connections: Lynn Cohen and Jerry Adler play a married couple in Manhattan Murder Mystery (until he murders her, setting up the titular mystery) and in Synechdoche, New York, they play Caden’s parents; John Cusack, star of Being John Malkovich, co-starred in Shadows and Fog and played the lead in Bullets Over Broadway; countless more actors have appeared in both a film written by Kaufman and a film by Woody Allen.


Sidewalks of New York (2001)

Sidewalks of New York poster

Edward Burns’ Sidewalks of New York is the only movie I’ve ever seen that could genuinely be mistaken for a real Woody Allen movie by even a relatively savvy fan (assuming they somehow missed the opening credits, of course). While Miami Rhapsody would love it if you made that mistake, it feels too much like an imitation or an exercise, and was made by a director with too divergent of a mindset. In Sidewalks of New York, though, Burns (who wrote, directed and co-starred) writes dialogue and characters vivid enough that they don’t feel like imitations and is genuinely interested in all the same things as Allen (like, for example, New York).

Like so many other films listed here, Sidewalks of New York is a “documentary.” But, more specifically, it is a documentary in the exact same style as Husbands and Wives. It shares Husbands’ “interviews,” its jump-cuts, its grainy handheld camera, and its unrealistically omniscient documentary crew. I’m not exaggerating when I say that footage of this film could be interspersed into Husbands and Wives and it wouldn’t stand out.

Edward Burns in Sidewalks of New York
Image from Sidewalks of New York

The characters’ conversations, interests, lifestyles, professions and love lives would make them feel at home in any number of Allen films. There’s no real ‘Woody Allen type’ character, though. The closest would be a dentist named Griffin, played by Stanley Tucci. He doesn’t really resemble Allen in terms of personality or dialogue, but his vocal mannerisms and hand gestures mimic Allen almost, but not quite, as blatantly as Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity.

Stanley Tucci and Heather Graham in Sidewalks of New York

Sidewalks of New York tells the story of uptown Manhattanites falling in love, breaking up, cheating, and doing a whole lot of talking. It’s light, but not silly. Some of the characters are nice, some are not, but all of them are distinct and engaging, and they’re played by talented, likable actors. At the risk of sounding like a movie poster: If you loved Hannah and her Sisters and Husbands and Wives, you’ll like Sidewalks of New York.

See Also: Other talky indie movies like She’s The One (1996), Chasing Amy (1997), 200 Cigarettes (1999), Last Days of Disco (2000).

Woody Allen Connections: Edward Burns and Woody Allen both contributed a short film to the 9/11 benefit concert (Allen’s was Sounds From a Town I Love); Stanley Tucci co-starred in Deconstructing Harry and directed Allen in The Impostors.


500 Days of Summer (2009)

500 Days of Summer poster

When I consulted Twitter for suggestions for this list, exactly 75% of the responses named 500 Days of Summer. It’s easy to see why: it shares an irreverent sense of humor and whimsical spirit with many Woody Allen movies, and has two characters who sometimes seem like more innocent, simplistically appealing variations on some of Allen’s stock characters. After Sidewalks of New York’s interest in Allen’s drier films, 500 Days of Summer harkens back to more light-hearted time in his career.

The female lead, named Summer (Zooey Deschanel), resembles a lot of the women who have perplexed and haunted Woody Allen through the years. Like the women portrayed by Diane Keaton, she’s passionate, young, fun, and a veritable quirk factory. Like Mia Farrow’s characters (and Christina Ricci’s and Scarlett Johansson’s) she’s a distant, ultimately unknowable object of desire.

Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer

Tom Hanson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) probably owes more to Benjamin Braddock than Woody Allen (something the movie openly acknowledges by interspersing clips of The Graduate). Tom shares Allen’s qualities of over-talking, over-thinking self-obsession, but lacks his depressive neuroses. Of course, Tom is also a much younger man. If Allen had made an Annie Hall when he was 25, maybe he’d be more sweetly, innocently romantic. By the time he actually got around to making real romantic comedies, Woody Allen was well into middle-age.

Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer

The first moment that reminded me of Woody Allen was a scene in which Tom finally decides that Summer is the girl of his dreams when he finds out she loves The Smiths — just as Ike and Mary were torn apart over a disagreement over Ingmar Bergman and Lee and Elliot finally bonded over an e.e. cummings poem. For some people, a person’s favorite band/director/poet is a minor character trait, for others, it tells you everything you could ever want to know about a person.

Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer
“You like The Smiths?”
Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Manhattan
“You don’t like Bergman?”

Speaking of Ingmar Bergman, Allen used to love making visual allusions to him, and 500 Days of Summer does too.

Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer

Structurally, 500 Days of Summer resembles Annie Hall even more than When Harry Met Sally, despite being two additional decades removed. If When Harry Met Sally is Annie’s child, 500 Days of Summer is its grandchild, updating and spreading the influence to yet a new generation. All the tricks WHMS borrowed from Annie Hall are passed down unabated, but 500 Days offers up a few new ones Allen probably wishes he’d thought of.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer

When Annie Hall was released, neither of 500 Days of Summer’s stars were born, and its director, Marc Webb, was three years old. 500 Days of Summer is likely a second-generation influence, at least. What it does tell us though, is that the cinematic conventions Allen stumbled across in the 1970s are still satisfying half-a-lifetime later.

See Also: Quirky/whimsical love stories like High Fidelity (1999), Garden State (2004), Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008), Adventureland (2009). And, of course, The Graduate.


The Artist (2011)

The Artist poster

Of all the movies discussed here, this is the one least inspired by Woody Allen — The Artist’s inspiration dates back to a time before Woody Allen was born. It just seems like something Woody Allen himself might have made at some point. He’s made dramas, comedies, fantasies, documentaries, thrillers, and even a musical — it’s actually sort of surprising he never made a silent movie. Maybe it’s just because Mel Brooks beat him to it.

Of course, if Allen did make a silent film, it would be very different from The Artist. Michel Hazanavicius’s film is achingly sincere — it’s a silent movie about silent movies, and great pains were taken to make it look like the real thing. Allen’s silent film would probably use a new medium to tell a familiar story. Instead of being about the silent film era, it would likely end up being about, well, Woody Allen.

In my review of Everyone Says I Love you I said, “The narrator opens by saying ‘we’re not the type of family you’d normally see see in a musical comedy.’ True, but they’re exactly the type of family you expect to see in a Woody Allen movie.” The same would likely be true of Allen’s silent film.

One could probably get a general idea of what Woody Allen’s theoretical attempt at silent film might look like by simply watching Sleeper. Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman had initially planned to make it entirely silent. Obviously they didn’t follow through with that, but many sequences are silent (with music) and large parts of the film are deliberately done in the style of silent-era comics like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

Woody Allen in Sleeper

Had Allen and Brickman adhered to their original vision, it’s likely that a lot of Sleeper’s modern political humor would have remained in some capacity. The Artist, though, is less Buster Keaton and more Errol Flynn, and it is boldly devoid of modernity. Sleeper took pot-shots at Richard Nixon and Howard Cosell (both of whom were contemporary at the time), but an allusion to Barack Obama, Sarah Palin or Nicolas Sarkozy (the movie is French, after all) would have been painfully out of place in The Artist.

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist

Woody Allen does his best impression of Buster Keaton, but in the end, he is and will always be Woody Allen. Jean Dujardin, who stars as George Valentin, on the other hand, is indecipherable from a real 1920s heartthrob.

Jean Dujardin in The Artist

Allen’s silent film (which, again, is still hypothetical) would probably be to The Artist what Everyone Says I Love You was to 2002’s Chicago — a messier, cheaper, less confident, more neurotic version.

See Also: Other movies pretending to be from a different time and place like What’s Up Doc (1972), Man of the Century (1999), Far From Heaven (2002), The Good German (2006), and of course Mel Brooks’ The Silent Movie (1976).

Woody Allen Connections: None to speak of, although it’s interesting to note that, in the most recent award season, The Artist was frequently up against Allen’s own ode to the 1920s: Midnight in Paris.


Unlike a list of actors who appear in Woody Allen movies, or a chart of how much money his movies make, it’s impossible to make a list of movies inspired by Woody Allen that’s objective or comprehensive. So please, don’t be afraid to contribute your own below.

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