La-Di-Da: Annie Hall Turns 40
As a genre, the romantic comedy is a tried and true way to get butts in seats. They might not always be critical darlings, but every once in awhile, they can strike a chord and please both critics and audiences alike. In 1977, Woody Allen did exactly that with Annie Hall, a picture that took the classic romcom formula of “boy dates girl, boy loses girl, boy goes into a personal crisis, boy wins girl back” and flipped it on its head. Annie Hall is the best the genre has to offer and one of Allen's finest hours (more like 90 minutes) both in front of and behind the camera. So, for its 40th anniversary, I figured I'd take a look back at this masterstroke of comedic film.
Annie Hall is not your typical romcom, and that much is obvious right off the bat. We start with Woody Allen, in character as Alvie Singer, looking right at the audience and telling jokes. Allen is a natural at this, having started as a stand-up comedian, and so it’s no surprise that the jokes hit as well as they do. The picture then moves forward to a flashback of Singer as a young child, discovering girls for the first time and getting chastised for kissing a random classmate. This leads to a classic “Where Are They Now?” bit where the children, representing their older selves, leading to an inappropriate punchline (“I’m into leather”) that’s Allen’s bread and butter as a comedy writer.
It’s hard to watch an Allen film and not picture the man himself as his characters. He rarely gives in-depth interviews so the audience has very little to go on in relation to his life, and so for all we know, Woody Allen might indeed be Alvie Singer, and vice versa. That said, his characters are so well written and defined that it’s not of much consequence. No one plays a neurotic, death-obsessed nebbish like Allen, and here he gives his best performance in a role/mode he’s become famous for. Always playing a riff on the same basic caricature, whether in this, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, or Manhattan Murder Mystery, if it ain’t broke, clearly Allen shouldn’t fix it.
After going through a multitude of failed relationships, Singer meets the stunningly beautiful Annie Hall (Diane Keaton in a career best performance) after a racquetball match in a classic “meet-cute” situation. Singer asks Annie if she needs a ride home, even though he doesn’t have a car, which of course leads to Annie driving them both back to her apartment. Playing into Allen’s innate fears, Annie is a terrible driver, nearly killing them both numerous times on their way home. It’s a hilarious scene, but also very sweet, as the two are clearly matching on a deep level, even if they don’t realize it. Allen and Keaton have an amazing chemistry together, so it’s no wonder that they’ve done seven films together over the years.
Alvie and Annie make it pretty far in their relationship, but as usual in Allen’s pictures, they start to self-sabotage each other. Never being able to meet halfway, growing farther and farther apart. This may sound like your typical romcom but the filmmaking techniques Allen uses to tell his story are eye-opening and original in their execution. From split-screen to an animated sequence, to fourth wall breaks to a brilliant sex scene rarely depicted in the genre. We’ve all seen a couple in one of these films where one member is completely disinterested but in Annie Hall, Allen actually has the blasé Annie literally leave her body during the lovemaking and observe the scene with the utmost contempt. It’s small touches like this that hold Allen's classic above most in the genre.
Are there more popular romantic comedies? Of course, but Annie Hall drew and perfected the blueprint that the genre has followed ever since. Many pictures have tried to match both its energy and style but nothing, not even Allen’s own films have matched it. One of a handful in the genre to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Annie Hall would win four Oscars at the 1978 ceremony, beating out fan-favorite Star Wars. Did Annie Hall deserve the win? I’d say so. It might not have the bombast of George Lucas' epic, but it’s just as important to genre filmmaking. Whereas Star Wars revitalized sci-fi adventure movies, Annie Hall did the same for romcoms, and nothing has ever been the same. Most comedies are flashes in the pan, that don’t warrant analysis or much thought, but here we are forty years on still discussing this seminal film.