Curb Your Enthusiasm director and executive producer Robert Weide has been granted unprecedented access to Woody Allen for a feature length documentary on the comic filmmaker. Given Allen’s private nature, the prospect of gaining insight into this iconic New Yorker’s creative process is an enticing one. To this end, Weide combines interviews with Allen alongside a host of talking heads, including actors, directors, managers, critics and relations. Best of all, however, is a plethora of entertaining movie clips and original onset footage capturing the director at work.
Allen’s life and career are documented in mainly chronological fashion, from his childhood in Brooklyn to present day successes such as Midnight in Paris, which took over $100 million worldwide – Owen Wilson, interviewed here, even jokes that Allen is the new Michael Bay. In fact, Allen had financial success surprisingly early, and, as the film reveals, was already employed by newspaper columns, writing fifty gags a night, whilst still at school. Eventually, Allen made the transition from writer to stand-up, and through archive footage we view the nervy, early performances that often made him feel physically sick with anxiety. There is also startling, priceless footage of Allen attempting to box a kangaroo.
Then it’s on into the movies, taking in Allen’s studio mangled script for What’s New Pussycat, followed by early comedic hits such as Take the Money and Run, whose box office success gained him creative freedom, and eventually onto more ambitious films, concentrating on feeling as much as laughs: think Annie Hall or Manhattan. It’s interesting to hear Allen’s own views on his work, and how often these differ from the critics. For instance, he was so dissatisfied with the acclaimed Manhattan that he tried to pull its release, and yet one of his favourite films, the stylish Stardust Memories (influenced by Fellini’s 8½), was heavily criticised in many quarters. Allen perhaps anticipated such a reaction, since one of the best laughs in Stardust… comes as an alien tells Allen’s character that they like his movies, “especially the early, funny ones.”
Clips from such films provide much of the viewing pleasure, and I found myself reacquainted with many favourite lines, such as “How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works!” Soon, however, the sheer volume of Allen’s output causes problems for the filmmakers, with certain periods of his life either rapidly dealt with or, at times, entirely skipped (perhaps a blessed relief in the early 2000’s). Indeed, the film’s second half rushes through the Mia Farrow years, the ensuing break up and marriage to Soon-Yi, as well as the director’s later work. The Soon-Yi issue, in particular, is frustratingly handled, since the film seems all too ready to accept Allen’s version of events unchallenged, and none of the interviewees risks saying anything truly critical.
Even so, the documentary offers useful insight into Allen as writer / director. Small details, such as the ancient typewriter that Allen always works on, or Allen’s onset interaction with actors such as Josh Brolin or Naomi Watts, prove oddly fascinating. In fact, actors seem to love Allen, yet by all accounts he is one of the least directive of filmmakers, with little time for motivation; his favourite instruction appears to be “do it faster,” so that he can return home in time for the ball game.
Despite its limitations in coverage, and insufficient examination of Allen as a person, Woody Allen: A Documentary still proves a highly enjoyable summation of the director’s career, and there is enough original material here for both casual and die-hards fans alike. As for the man himself, there’s no sign of Allen giving up filmmaking anytime soon, but, I have to admit, I still like his early, funny movies best.
Review by David Morrison