When I watched Annie Hall recently, it was probably about the tenth time I had seen it in its entirety, albeit the first time in probably something like 25-30 years.
Despite that long gap, so much of it—the gags, the characters—was completely familiar to me, like I could have recited almost all of the dialogue of the movie. About the only thing I picked up on that maybe I was less in tune with when I was young were certain aspects of the technically skillful filmmaking, like some unconventional inventive shots and camera angles.
But this was a very important film for me in my formative years, and so I’d have to say one of the most important films of my life.
When it came out, I had just run away from home in my teens and settled in a new city. It was a time of maximum vulnerability, uncertainty, and risk. I had almost no money, which was only slightly alleviated by the minimum wage job I eventually picked up. I didn’t have a TV or much of anything else in terms of material possessions, if I went out I really couldn’t spend significant money, and in the early days and weeks especially I knew no one and had no social life.
One of the very, very few things I did for enjoyment was go to the movies about once a week, at the cheaper times. There weren’t all that many films out at that time that I was interested in, so mostly I watched the same few repeatedly. Specifically I saw Rocky, the Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest, and Annie Hall over and over and over.
The first two were obvious choices for me because I was a huge boxing fan and specifically Muhammad Ali fan when I was young. With Annie Hall, though, I was just taking a shot. I had never seen a Woody Allen movie, indeed I had barely ever heard of him (there were some references to him in Howard Cosell’s autobiography that I had read; that might have been literally my only awareness of him), but it was a comedy and I figured I’d give it a chance.
The humor connected with me immediately. It fit my own style. It wasn’t just someone on a stage doing stand-up, but someone living his life and making funny observational remarks along the way about the people and situations he encountered, which was something I did. I wasn’t some great class clown as a kid, but I had a way of spontaneously coming up with good quips if I happened to be with someone receptive to my style of dry humor. I’m sure I emulated Woody and did it even more after seeing the movie, but I was already like that to some extent before I left home.
I became a big Woody Allen fan, and once I got a VCR some years later I rented videos of most or all of his earlier films, not to mention I thoroughly enjoyed his next film at the theater, Manhattan. Like many folks, I loved those early gag-filled comedies, but I felt his subsequent, more “serious,” films were a mixed bag, and indeed I eventually stopped automatically including a film on my list of films to be sure to watch just because it was a Woody Allen film.
In its way Annie Hall is a pretty straightforward, simple romantic comedy: Woody as Alvy Singer meets Annie Hall, they have their romance, and they go their separate ways (so maybe that’s different from the typical romantic comedy in that they don’t end up together to live happily ever after). But there’s a lot more going on than that implies, and a lot more that’s unconventional.
It jumps around chronologically. There are stylistic anomalies (e.g., the characters turn into animated figures briefly). There are surrealistic elements.
And it all just comes together so well. The offbeat elements aren’t distracting or show offy; they’re consistently clever and fit the flow nicely. You care about the central characters as individuals and as a couple. It provokes thoughts and emotions about your own romantic relationships.
Plus it’s just really funny from start to finish. I suppose it only has 75%-80% of the laughs of a pure comedy like Bananas or Love and Death, because it devotes a certain amount of time and attention to other purposes—which it also handles quite well—but this is awesome comedy.
It’s fun seeing people who were early enough in their career to not be famous yet but who became big stars later (e.g., Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum), as well as people famous for something other than acting (e.g., Paul Simon).
Favorite moments? Oh, I don’t know, there are so many. The nervous first date dialogue, with the helpful subtitles below revealing what they are thinking while they are saying what they’re saying. Finding out what became of Alvy’s elementary school classmates (“I used to be a heroin addict. Now I’m a methadone addict.”) “I was at an Alice Cooper thing where six people were rushed to the hospital with bad vibes.” The split screen contrast between Annie’s Midwest white bread family and Alvy’s New York ethnic family. “Darling, I’ve been killing spiders since I was thirty, OK?” Alvy producing Marshall McLuhan out of nowhere to shut up a guy in a movie line. “Don’t worry, we can walk to the curb from here.” Alvy and Annie laughingly fumbling around with lobsters (paralleled nicely by a sad later scene of Alvy and another date in a similar situation completely failing to connect over it). “You have a raccoon?” “A few.” Alvy opposing drug use because he’s a comedian and it means nothing to him when people on drugs laugh at his material because “Those people laugh at anything” (which wonderfully conveys one reason I find recreational drug use repellent). Interviewing the perfect couple on the street and finding out that what makes them so happy and so compatible is that they’re both morons incapable of being anything but superficial. “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.” Driving with Annie’s brother after he has confessed his suicidal fantasies. “There are people out there from the New Yorker magazine!” And about 25 others.
Actually, I’ll include Diane Keaton’s singing. It’s pretty darn impressive for someone known as an actress and not a singer.
It’s a lot harder to find any weaknesses. Alvy’s being paranoid about anti-Semitism doesn’t seem to do much or be developed in an interesting way. Maybe Annie is just a little bit too goofy at times to where it crosses the line from charming to something less.
Actually, in thinking about it after this most recent viewing, I don’t know that one of the main themes of the film works all that well. Alvy as narrator talks about how his history with women can be summed up by the Groucho Marx line (which was Groucho’s response to a country club that, unsolicited, offered him a membership): “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.”
But does that really fit what we see of his behavior in relationships? Alvy is comically neurotic in certain respects, but mostly he’s a together person, he’s confident (indeed, in some respects he’s decidedly arrogant), and he treats his partner average or better compared to how most people do. I’m not convinced there’s a pattern of subtly sabotaging his relationships and failing to appreciate romantic opportunities because he simultaneously thinks so highly and so lowly of himself that he always thinks he can do better than the kind of women who he thinks would be willing to be with someone like him. He makes as much or more effort to sustain the relationship with Annie as she does; it doesn’t feel like all that much of a case of foolishly letting a good thing get away (at least any more than you can say that to a modest degree about almost any relationship that turns out not to be permanent).
But anyway, Annie Hall is a classic. It meant a great deal to me as a teenager, and when I watch it today I don’t have that feeling of, “It’s OK, but I must have been a much different person when I loved this movie.” It’s still a home run.