There was a certain pattern forming, from What’s New Pussycat to Bananas to the ever-looming Annie Hall. With each venture, Woody Allen was making small but measured steps from slapstick, goofy movie star to acclaimed, melodramatic heavyweight. Play It Again, Sam jumps the gun a little bit. It plays as sort of an Annie Hall dry run, right in the middle of a slapstick frenzy. It’s not in the same league as any of his classic films, but it’s surprising to see such a measured, emotional film that takes itself so seriously sandwiched between Bananas and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.
Part of this incongruity probably stems from the fact that Play It Again, Sam was transplanted from a different time and medium. This 1972 film is adapted from a 1969 Broadway play written by and starring Allen. The stage seems a strange venue for Woody Allen — live theatre dramatically restricts locations, verbal and physical subtlety and, in most cases, the ability to improvise outside of a set choreography. In a sizable venue (such as Broadyway’s Broadhurst Theatre, where Play it Again, Sam played), Allen’s trademark physical humor and mumbled quips would be lost on all but the first few rows.
Theatre also plays to very different audiences and sets very different goals. Take the Money and Run and Bananas played in multiplexes all over America and the world, trying to leverage Woody Allen’s popular image as a flustered goofball into maximum box-office gross. Play it Again, Sam, on the other hand, would have been trying to leverage positive reviews to attract New York’s theatre-enthusiasts — especially in early 1969, when Allen’s name was not the draw it had become by 1972.
Play it Again, Sam, showing off its theatrical roots, is more emotional, and focuses on developing a few interesting characters within mostly one location. It opens with Allan Felix (Woody Allen) captivated as he sits in a movie theatre watching the conclusion of Casablanca. Immediately after, he’s left by his wife (Louse Lasser, with whom he had just divorced in real life, but I guess was on good terms with). Then, and for a significant portion of the movie, he wanders around his apartment talking with the imaginary ghost of Humphrey Bogart (played by Jerry Lacy in an enjoyable performance that’s somewhere between sincere imitation and over-the-top Saturday Night Live-style send-up).
The movie’s far-fetched conceit is that Felix is an awkward nerd who wants to be more like a bad-ass movie star. Bogart gives pep-talks and doles out plenty of good advice on “handling” “dames,” but Felix continues to struggle with his timidity and shyness in front of women.
For the first time in his career, Allen is playing a character reminiscent of the real-life Woody Allen. He’s always played a Woody Allen of one sort or another, but he’s no longer the bumbling, unemployable idiot he’s been until now. He’s still clumsy, true, but Allan Felix is also well-educated, eloquent and interested in fine art and music. As a film critic with a nice apartment, he’s a long ways from the “product tester” of Bananas, the dressing assistant of What’s New Pussycat or the low-rent criminal of Take the Money and Run.
His character’s new realism and prosperity strips Allen of his usual underdog appeal, however, and all that’s left is a somewhat gratingly self-absorbed and whiny man. That’s not a criticism of the movie, as his unpleasantness is portrayed honestly. Most of the woman Felix meets are understandably turned off by him, and his friend’s tolerance of his constant moaning is stretched thin.
When they hear about his romantic abandonment, Felix is consoled by his married friends Dick and Linda (played by Allen’s Annie Hall co-stars Tony Roberts and Diane Keaton).
When Linda first arrives in the movie, even though she and Felix are allegedly old friends, they have several ham-handed “Meet Cute” moments. Their very first conversation somewhat lazily telegraphs that the two of them will fall in love together by, instead of demonstrating palpable chemistry, revealing a cutesy set of idiosyncratic mutual interests. In this case, they both use the same obscure medication cocktails, and their analysts are both out of town and, gee, isn’t that just the worst? Then Dick, in an eye-rolling moment of obvious foreshadowing, jokingly says “Hey, maybe you two should just get married!”
But anyway, before either of them get around to realizing or acting on their feelings, Linda (with Dick’s help) tries to help get Felix back on his feet by setting him up with co-workers and friends.
Bananas and Take the Money and Run relied increasingly less (although still quite heavily) on physical humor. Here, there is almost none. There is only one purely slapstick scene — in which Allen tries to blow-dry his hair, but the strength of the dryer blows him around the bathroom — and it feels painfully out of place in the rest of the movie. Woody Allen is still jittery and clumsy, but it’s uncomfortable and awkward now, more reminiscent of Elaine May comedies or the British Office than the Marx Brothers. On a double date with Dick and Linda, Allen falls over a table and spills his drink on his date, but with everyone else’s realistic reactions combined with the absence of the wacky sax music we’re used to hearing in such moments, it’s funny in a very cringe-inducing sort of way.
This is also the fourth time in six movies in which Woody Allen has been roughed-up by tough guys, but the first time it’s not supposed to be funny. At least not entirely. The tough guys in Play it Again, Sam are genuinely menacing, and when they harass him in front of his date, it’s more humiliating than funny.
Allen also dips heavily into his seemingly endless well of verbal humor. Even as his movies get more serious, Woody Allen as an actor is seemingly incapable of conversing without every other sentence ending in a punch-line. Old habits die hard I guess, but it’s appreciated when he’s as sharp as he is here. One classic Allen moment is his attempt to pick up a girl in an art gallery, perhaps the single funniest conversation to take place in any of his movies so far.
Allan Felix: “That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?”
Girl: “Yes, it is.”
Allan Felix: “What does it say to you?”
Girl: “It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man forced to live in a barren, Godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation, forming a useless bleak straitjacket in a black absurd cosmos.”
Allan Felix: “What are you doing Saturday night?”
Girl: “Committing suicide.”
Allan Felix: “What about Friday night?”
Eventually, Felix musters up the courage to share his feelings with Linda. He invites her over and, with mounting pressure from Bogart (who is a lot pushier than I remember him being in Casablanca), makes his move. It goes over pretty well, and they “make love like ferocious animals” (his words).
The film concludes with an ending which mimics the ending of Casablanca. In both movies, it’s a great, touching, exciting ending. Here, Felix finally becomes the confident, authoritative Bogart-like man he’s been trying to be, and sends Linda away on a plane with Dick, knowing that while she might want to now, if she leaves Dick she’ll regret it — maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, etc. Then, when Dick gets ready to leave with his wife, Felix, like Bogart, lies and tells the other man that he’s in love with his woman, but “she’s chosen you and I accept that.”
Movies with such wholly conclusive endings can seem forced, but when it’s done well, as it is here, it’s thrilling to watch everything come together. Part of what makes Casablanca’s ending so great is its classic misdirection, making dramatic use of its knowledge that audiences inherently expect the movie stars and romantic leads to end up together. It’s a rare plot twist that’s not a gimmick — the new, unexpected ending is more satisfying and touching than the ending you thought was coming. It’s also happier, in a more meaningful way and for all characters, than any other ending you might have anticipated.
Play it Again, Sam takes everything that made Casablanca’s ending work, and effectively recycles it. You expect Felix and Linda to end up together, because, as I said before, their romantic connection is made obvious from their first meeting. And, again, Felix and Linda are the stars of what is otherwise built like a very conventional romantic comedy. Plus, Dick, Linda’s husband, spends most of the movie being portrayed as a boring, working stiff (he’s constantly calling his office, going on and on about ‘business deals’, etc). After ardently adhering to them for the previous hour, the movie subverts a wide variety of romantic comedy cliches.
To the casual fan, Play It Again, Same is basically Annie Hall-lite. Consistently funny, smarter than most romantic comedies, and with a touching ending. For me, it was a refreshing change of pace.
- “I wonder if she actually had an orgasm in the two years we were married, or if she faked it that night.”
- “I don’t feel so hot, I have this throbbing in the pit of my stomach”
“I get that sometimes.”
“What is it, fear or anxiety?”
- “Do you have any women in your therapy group that would be good for me? Emotionally disturbed women are sort of interesting. Maybe a good pervert, or something.”
- “Here, I got you a present because it’s your birthday.”
“How’d you know?”
“Well, you mentioned the date and I remembered because it’s the same day my mother had her hysterectomy.”
- “You were fantastic last night in bed.”
“How do you feel now?”
“I think the Pepto Bismol helped.”
- “I threw up in the United Airlines terminal”
“That’s a good terminal, I’ve thrown up there”
- “It’s fear of separation. I get it sometimes. I had to go to Washington when I was married once, and I threw up. And then I got back, and she threw up.”
- No one actually says “Play it again, Sam” in Casablanca, although that sentiment is expressed many times.
- You wouldn’t know from watching it, but this a rare Woody Allen film he didn’t direct. It was directed by Herbert Ross, feel-good maestro behind such classics as Footloose, Steel Magnolias, Funny Lady and more.
- Allen revealed years later that he doesn’t even like Casablanca (“I couldn’t sit through it”), but felt it was appropriate that his character would look up to Bogart as portrayed therein.
- The play was, by all accounts, a success. It ran for 453 shows. It also had the same core cast as the movie — Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Jerry Lacy. I’m not sure when Keaton and Allen first became romantically involved, but I’m sure some sort of Pavlovian conditioning started to effect Diane Keaton after pretending to fall in love with Woody Allen 453 times in front of a large audience.
- This is a rare Allen film made outside of New York. It’s filmed and takes place in San Francisco (Linda and Felix even ride a trolley).