The 5 Most Underrated Woody Allen Movies
Byon July 24, 2014
An alternately diverting and dull trifle, Friday’s Magic in the Moonlight is yet another Woody Allen film that elicits little more than a shrug. Regardless of continually giving leading ladies roles that attract Academy Award attention (Cate Blanchett’s Best Actress statuette for last year’s Blue Jasmine being the latest), Allen’s output as of late has been marked by the nagging sense that the director is happy to cover the same terrain of prior, far superior works. The closest thing he’s made to a superb film in the past decade is probably 2011’s spry and amusing (if nonetheless slight) Midnight in Paris. Yet there are still entries in Allen’s overwhelmingly productive career that deserve to be discovered. Skip the theater ticket this weekend and try one of these unsung Woody Allen gems.
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
This drama, like many of Allen’s works, is influenced by the Swedish cinematic great Ingmar Bergman, whose Wild Strawberries, along with Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, is the inspiration for this caustic tale of a writer (Allen) traveling back to his old university to receive an honorary degree. Accompanying him are his son (whom he’s kidnapped from his ex-wife), a prostitute, and an ailing friend. Rathern than a straightforward road trip saga, the film is a rambling and often ugly journey in which the filmmaker — via his protagonist proxy — lays bare his obsession with sex and himself. Blurring reality and fiction, it’s a bluntly candid confession of the writer/director’s own personal failings.
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982)
The first of Allen’s films to feature him not as the nominal leading man but as part of an ensemble, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy is, like Deconstructing Harry, a portrait of sexual craziness based on an Ingmar Berman classic (Smiles of a Summer’s Night). But here, Allen operates in a far more whimsical mode, detailing three couples at a country manor whose relationships are thrown into chaos by each man’s desire for another’s wife. All manner of complications and machinations ensue, and are handled with a light, breezy touch by Allen, who crafts his period-piece material like a graceful doodle and, in the process, comes up with a refreshingly unique comedy free of his usual nebbishy persona.
Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
While Allen’s best films almost always include him in a prominent role, Sweet and Lowdown proves an exception. With Allen only briefly appearing as a talking head in this faux-biography, the film tells the 1930s tale of a fictional caddish jazz guitar legend (Sean Penn) and his mute, subservient love (Samantha Morton). Penn is a marvel, relishing the opportunity to act like an egotistical and entitled creep whose bad behavior is excused by his “genius.” A character study of an artist who’s only under control when making his art, as well as a sly critique of documentary conventions, it’s a film that expertly balances the goofy and the melancholy, with Morton giving a stunning silent film-like performance.
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
A reunion between Allen and Diane Keaton spurred by Mia Farrow’s last-second decision to drop out of the project (because of the ongoing Allen-Farrow-Soon-Yi Previn scandal), Manhattan Murder Mystery is a charmingly insightful marital drama masquerading as a ridiculous whodunit. When Keaton’s Manhattanite starts to suspect that a neighbor has offed his wife, she embarks on an investigation that also comes to involve her naysaying husband (Allen) and two others (Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston) who have eyes for Keaton and Allen, respectively. Taking its cue from the Thin Man films, it’s an amateur-sleuth piece brimming with trademark Allen one-liners.
Starring Kenneth Branagh as the de facto “Woody Allen” character, Celebrity was most notable at the time of its release for showcasing a fresh-from-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio. A black-and-white satire of the entertainment industry, it charts Branagh’s pop-culture writer as he divorces his longtime wife (Judy Davis) and embarks on a series of misadventures involving the famous people he’s tasked with covering. Though it sometimes comes across as a series of loosely connected sketches, it remains one of Allen’s last films to truly dig into his own onscreen persona, an endeavor that again exposes the filmmaker as a man beset by neurosis, guided by his libido, confused about how to treat women, and desperate to find meaning (about himself, and about life) in the bright lights of Hollywood.