So far on this site, 27 movies in, there’s only been three that I would describe as bad films — Casino Royale, King Lear, and now, Scenes From a Mall. Not coincidentally, all three of these movies are rare instances of Woody Allen acting in, but neither writing nor directing, a movie. He’s lucky he’s one of the most acclaimed and prolific writer/directors of all time because, based on his acting choices, his career probably wouldn’t have gone far otherwise.
To be fair, his appearances in Casino Royale and The Front (his best acting-only movie so far) made a lot of sense sense on paper. As a hot young comic, he wisely signed on to a sure-fire hit with a star-studded cast — and though it wasn’t a very good movie, Casino Royale was incredibly successful. The Front was a perfect, easy transition for a popular comic actor trying to move into more serious territory. His presence in Scenes From a Mall, however, is so outrageously misguided that it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking it was a good idea.
This is a movie in which Woody Allen plays a tracksuit-wearing, surfing, ponytailed sports agent living in Los Angeles. I admire Allen as an actor, but this is a character so vastly outside of his limited range it’s embarrassing to watch. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that this is one of the worst miscastings I’ve ever seen.
Here are some lines that Woody Allen actually says in this movie. Read these and try to imagine Woody Allen saying them with a ponytail and a straight face:
- [after receiving a surfboard as a present]
“I can’t wait to hit Malibu and feel the waves crashing against my chest”
- [after arriving at the mall]
“This parking lot is so crowded... it’s even worse than the Springsteen concert”
- [trying to find his car in the parking lot]
“Christ, where’s my fucking Saab?”
- “I’m sick and tired of hearing people go on and on about how New York is the cultural center of America.”
None of these lines are delivered with any sarcasm or irony. Allen is heroically trying to convince us that he’s a guy with a ponytail who likes to go surfing.
The only other significant character in the movie is Allen’s wife, played by Bette Midler. This, I have to admit, is an inspired choice. I’d love to see these two headline a real movie. The strong-willed, brassy Midler would be a welcome contrast to the wispy flakes Allen typically pairs himself with.
The plot: on their anniversary, Allen confesses to Bette Midler that he’s had an affair. She gets angry, they decide to get divorced. Then they talk it out, reunite, have sex in a movie theatre, and call off the divorce. Midler then confesses to an affair of her own, and Allen wants a divorce again. They reconcile again. This all takes place over a single day in a shopping mall.
This might not seem like much plot, but it somehow takes over ninety minutes to unfold. The movie’s title and general outline are reminiscent of Ignmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (which may be what attracted Allen to the project). Marriage was a fairly plotless dissection of a marriage, as is Mall, although Bergman’s film was exacting and precise, whereas Scenes From a Mall flails wildly and desperately, leaving us with not a single moment of genuine human interaction.
The protagonists swing so drastically from emotion to emotion, there’s absolutely no grounding in reality or continuity. They go from screaming angry to cordial to lustful at the drop of a hat. In the end, the film’s title takes on a different, unintended meaning — instead of a single movie, we’re watching a bunch of disjointed vignettes, with the same two actors playing a series of totally different characters. It’s sort of like a movie-length version of the Improv game “Continuing Emotion,” where a scene is frozen and then resumed with each character being assigned a different emotion. The result is confusing, boring and exhausting.
In the end, Allen’s ludicrous miscasting emerges, unexpectedly, as one of the movie’s most interesting aspects. Had a more appropriate actor been cast (i.e. anyone, ever), the film would simply have been grating and dull. Watching Allen try to negotiate an advertising contract with Reebok for his star client and discuss his love of surfing at least inspires morbid curiosity and bursts of (entirely unintentional) humor.
You’d think that, at the very least, a movie that consists almost entirely of Woody Allen talking would result in a quotable one-liner or two, but Allen’s Woodyisms are strangely neutered. He says a lot of things in his trademark set-up and delivery, but the “punchline” usually just left me scratching my head. At one point, dressed in a newly purchased coat, he says “I look like a Brazilian gigolo.” Earlier, Midler says she’s got him the “perfect gift for your mid-life crisis” and he responds “then it must be a full-body vibrator.” Why is that funny? Are middle-aged men notorious for loving vibrators? Do gigolos in Brazil wear sport-coats? Maybe I’m dense, but I don’t really get either of those jokes (or any of the dozens others just like them).
Regardless, any aspirations for intentional humor in this movie are probably doomed by comparison — nothing could make me laugh as hard as I did at the sight of a ponytailed Woody Allen in a LA shopping mall shouting “Where’s my fucking Saab?” and trying to keep a straight face.
Two other things I should mention, if only to further flesh out the experience of watching Scenes From a Mall. The third most significant character is an unnamed mime, played by Bill Irwin. He follows the main characters around, pantomiming their actions, as mimes are wont to do. The fourth most significant character, arguably, is Fabio, who plays himself. He has no real role, and no lines — he just stands around, being Fabio. Why? I don’t know. My guess is that the writer/director, Paul Markuzy, thought that it would be funny to have Fabio in the movie, but couldn’t quite figure out where to go from there. Fabio just stands there, and the camera lingers on him as if to say “Hey! Fabio is in this movie! ISN’T THAT FUNNY?!?!?”
If asked to name the worst movie thus far discussed on this site, I would probably say Scenes From a Mall. Casino Royale’s ambition and star-power at least give it some degree of fascination. King Lear was seemingly pretentious, inane and ridiculous, but given Jean-Luc Godard’s subversive reputation, part of me is afraid that I just didn’t get it, so I’m hedging my bets and trying not to criticize it too much. Scenes From a Mall, however, is a safe bet: it’s bad in a simple, unambiguous, obvious sort of way.
- If nothing else, this movie offered a novel contribution to this infographic.
- Writer/director Paul Markuzy has a small role as the psychiatrist Midler is having an affair with.
- Bill Irwin, the mime, is Mr. Noodle on Sesame Street. He’s part of “Elmo’s World.”
- According to IMDb, Woody Allen had never, previous to this movie, set foot in a real mall.