On October 2, Westworld premiered on HBO, quickly becoming a cultural phenomenon. On September 30, Marvel Studios’ much-anticipated Luke Cage debuted on Netflix. And that same day, another well-publicized series—Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes—appeared on Amazon Prime. As October draws to a close, I think it’s safe to say which show has impacted the zeitgeist least. Never mind that we’re apparently in an era of Peak TV™, when everybody spends four hours a night watching TV shows just to keep afloat in daily conversation—a modest little six-episode series written and directed by an iconic/controversial filmmaker and starring a massively famous pop star can’t seem to garner even a few hate-watches.
Early reviews indicated that Crisis in Six Scenes was just an overlong Woody Allen movie arbitrarily cut into six episodes, and also that it was terrible. The poor notices only fueled my anticipation. As someone who saw Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, and Anything Else on their opening weekends, I consider myself a scholar of bad Woody Allen movies. I derive great pleasure from being able to compare these films like wine vintages.
There are a lot of reasons why Woody Allen is a frustrating proposition in the year 2016. Though the Woodman’s career has been varied enough to encompass comedies, dramas, period pieces, a mockumentary, a murder mystery, a musical, a few anthology films, a neo-Expressionist comedy, a pastoral farce, and a biopic about a fictional jazz musician, his main problem is that he essentially has four ideas that have been spread pretty thin over 40+ films, especially the recent ones:
- There is no god, and the universe is a pitiless void, so we must seek out whatever happiness we can find (see: Whatever Works, Magic in the Moonlight)
- There is no god, and the universe is a pitiless void, and the bleak truth is that our fates are governed only by luck and our own self-imposed morality (see: Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream, Irrational Man, and of course, Crimes and Misdemeanors)
- There is no god, and the universe is a pitiless void, but we must face it head-on, rather than retreating to fiction, religion, or nostalgia. (see: Midnight in Paris, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and of course, The Purple Rose of Cairo)
- “I thought of that old joke, y’know… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.’ And, uh, the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships: y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd… but, uh, I guess we keep going through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.” (see: Anything Else, To Rome With Love, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Magic in the Moonlight, all the other ones)
Another problem is the dispiriting sense that Allen stopped engaging with the world a long time ago. Movies like Annie Hall and Manhattan appealed to young, pseudo-intellectual urbanites partly because they offered visions of a certain kind of lifestyle that viewers could project themselves onto. Every now and then Allen hits upon that feeling again (Midnight in Paris, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), but usually his perspective seems locked in the ‘70s. Examples: 2003’s Anything Else, a near-remake of Annie Hall, which starred Jason Biggs as “a 21-year-old divorced comedy writer” who says things like, “I like visiting the Village, but I like going home to the Upper East Side”; 2015’s Irrational Man, with Joaquin Phoenix as a philosophy professor who kept quoting such Philosophy 101 names as Kierkegaard, Kant, and Hannah Arendt. When Allen does try to engage with How We Live Now™, the results can be embarrassing: the bewilderingly acclaimed Blue Jasmine (inspired by the Bernie Madoff scandal) features a “working class” grocery store clerk who lives in a three-bedroom in downtown San Francisco, and an aspiring congressman who apparently has never heard of Google.
(There’s also another problem, which is that Allen’s daughter has accused him of molesting her as a child. So, let’s address the ever-popular can-you-separate-the-artist-from-the-art? question. Art is art and people are people, and Annie Hall is Annie Hall and Woody Allen is Woody Allen, and you can find art interesting without wanting to have dinner with the artist. Having said that, if the art is truly art, then it’s impossible to separate the artist. The fact that Woody Allen chose to destroy his family by marrying his girlfriend’s adopted daughter, and also possibly molested his own adopted daughter, suggests a dark, amoral side to his “whatever works” philosophy.)
Still: there is still much to enjoy in the annual Woody Allen movie. First of all: it has always been fun to speculate on how his off-screen life influences his art. It can’t be a coincidence, for instance, that a lot of his post-1992 movies are about middle-aged men rationalizing their irresponsible love lives (“That’s why I can’t say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works”). As a follower of the Woody/Mia drama, I had a chuckle that the villain of Irrational Man—a character so vile, so cruel, so corrupt, so utterly irredeemable that the protagonist deems him worthy of murder—was… a family law attorney.
I also sort-of agree (in theory, at least) with Michael Koresky’s sympathetic review in Reverse Shot of Irrational Man: “Rather than stuck in a rut, I see him as a teacher returning to the same handful of classes every year, whose syllabi infrequently change but which can continue to illuminate core concepts and values and aesthetic ideas. That he can still instruct with such wit and coherence, and that he has such great guest speakers to help illustrate the course work, is reason to keep signing up.” I found myself unexpectedly moved by his 2016 feature Café Society, which wistfully conveyed how our decisions can haunt us in unexpected ways for the rest of our lives. I left the movie thinking that even if Allens’ ideas are familiar, they’re still worth thinking about. And, despite his disappointing batting average, I like the symbolic role* that Allen occupies in the current cinematic landscape: a filmmaker who regularly makes personal movies about people, relationships, and Big Ideas, with access to reasonable budgets and big-name actors.
Anyway, that’s a roundabout way of saying that Crisis in Six Scenes is indeed pretty damn bad, but it’s bad in a way that was catnip for a Woody Allen completist like myself.
Allen (age 80) stars as Sidney Munsinger, a failed novelist turned hack TV writer during the turbulent 1960s. In the opening scene, we meet him in a barbershop, instructing the barber to make him look like James Dean, and generally purveying the ol’ Woody Allen Shtick™ as if he hasn’t been accused of child molestation in real life. It’s a little disconcerting to see Woody Allen—who seemed to stay roughly the same age from 1977 to 2002—now suddenly appear like the tiny, slump-shouldered, high-waisted-pants-wearing 80-year-old that he is.
Meanwhile, American hero Elaine May (acting for the first time since 2000’s Small Time Crooks) plays his wife Kay, a marriage counselor, who provides Allen with a chance to dust off some of his patented kvetching-couples material. Kay also hosts a book club with her elderly friends, all of whom resemble Aunt Tessie, “the sister who had personality” and “was quite a lively dancer” from Annie Hall. Their life is turned upside down when Lennie Dale (Miley Cyrus), a hippie revolutionary on the run from the police. While Woody Sidney frets, Kay takes an interest in Lennie’s ideas, and soon has her book group reading Marx, Mao, and Abbie Hoffman. Lennie also casts a spell on the family’s young friend Alan (John Brockman, channeling a certain nebbishy filmmaker), who is preparing for a life of tranquil domesticity with his fiancée.
Most of Allen’s best movies clock in at around 90 minutes. Added up, Crisis in Six Scenes runs about 140, with every scene (a lot more than six of ‘em) lasting a few minutes too long. Allen is either incapable of or unwilling to explore the storytelling possibilities of episodic television, and the early reviews were correct that this is a long movie chopped into 23-minute portions. Otherwise, the show is bad in the ways that you’d expect from Allen: the dialogue is clunky (“Did you ever think you’d see America like this? So polarized? These riots—black versus white, male versus female, young versus old…”) and delivered stiltedly. The script, which would be uneventful even if at half the length, has all the shoot-the-first-draft sloppiness of Late Woody. (Episode two includes some crap-tastic gags about Lennie being a sleepwalker. I waited feverishly for this set-up to pay off in episode six, but no dice.) Cyrus and Magaro are bad, but no worse than any number of young actors who have struggled to deliver Allen’s dialogue since the turn of the millennium. You can’t say a line like “I had a shrink who was a strict Freudian…” and not sound like you’re in a community theatre production of Play It Again, Sam.
But with Woody, the good and the bad are always intertwined, so if you’ve been a longtime follower you might greet the corny jokes (“I served proudly—I have a purple heart.” “I had a yellow streak”) like old friends. He dusts off old gags wholesale (notably the “I forbid it!” bit from Manhattan Murder Mystery and the hypochondria subplot from Hannah and Her Sisters), and if you’re in the right mood, it’s a bit like Tony Orlando belting out “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” at a casino. Also, if you can compartmentalize the fact that he’s been accused of child molestation, you might also enjoy seeing the Woodman back doing his Woodman shtick—arms-wavering and stuttering like Broadway Danny Rose. Nobody delivers that Woody dialogue more convincingly than Woody, and if anything, his old and shrivelled appearance makes him look more like Woody Allen than he’s ever looked before.
For Woodyologists, the show’s chief interest is its element of autocritique. In the first episode, Kay might as well be describing Woody Allen when she says of Sidney, “Sid doesn’t like to be anywhere but home, in his own little spot on the bed with a ball game playing on the television. He likes his routine to be unruffled.” Sidney, like Allen, is a comfortable bourgeois liberal who, as Richard Brody notes, was far away from the social upheavals of the ‘60s when he was appearing in What’s New Pussycat and Casino Royale (“Our friends wanted us to go demonstrate in Washington last week, but I dunno, I think I’m too old,” says one character). Sidney and Lennie have many long, episode-padding conversations on the complicity of the bourgeoisie in systemic oppression, and one senses Allen questioning if reading the newspaper and making a few charitable donations is really enough.
In the end, all this introspection doesn’t amount to much. Alan returns to his fiancée after Lennie tells her, “He’s not in love with me. He wouldn’t last a week in Cuba. He’s just in love with what I symbolize.” (Alan warns her that he still plans to be politically active after the marriage, but this conversation climaxes with: “You won’t get too radical?” “Only in bed.”) Ultimately, Woody Allen reaches the disappointing, anticlimactic (but not unreasonable) conclusion that we should all be more socially conscious, but that most of us are not cut out for real radical activism. His position remains unchanged from Larry David’s opening monologue in Whatever Works:
“My father committed suicide because the morning newspapers depressed him. And could you blame him? With the horror, and corruption, and ignorance, and poverty, and genocide, and AIDS, and global warming, and terrorism, and-and the family value morons, and the gun morons. ‘The horror,’ Kurtz said at the end of Heart of Darkness, ‘the horror.’ Lucky Kurtz didn’t have the Times delivered in the jungle. Ugh… then he’d see some horror. But what do you do? You read about some massacre in Darfur or some school bus gets blown up, and you go ‘Oh my God, the horror,’ and then you turn the page and finish your eggs from the free range chickens. Because what can you do? It’s overwhelming!”
* (For the record, I don’t like the other symbolic role Allen plays: a wealthy, powerful artist who continues to continues to attract big-name patrons and collaborators despite the allegations that he molested his own daughter.)