These days, each new Woody Allen film offers me only the dispiriting sight of a once volcanically creative artist continually raking over the same old ground, barely challenging himself, and dragging his esteemed cast of actors into his circle of stifling complacency. I say “these days”, but I haven’t seen a satsifying new Allen film since 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown. It must be difficult to make a full-blooded character out of such schematic raw material as Allen gives to his leads here. In this case, Watts plays a woman who has subordinated her own ambitions (she wants to be a mother, and an art dealer – Allenesque shorthand for a character who is intellectually able and culturally curious) to her husband’s attempts at reviving his stalled writing career (writing block being Allenesque shorthand for a character who is … well, it’s hardly a shorthand – he’s just preoccupied, ironically, with intellectual creatives who can’t produce creative work any more).
Time and time again in Allen’s recent films, we can see the same character types, declarations of attraction, and adulterous acts coming a mile off. Each person is dissatisfied with something, and their achievement of satisfaction comes at the expense of somebody close to them. An older man will try to recapture his youth in an affair with a much younger woman (who will herself turn out to be a vapid, trashy, self-absorbed bore unworthy of his high-minded efforts); a writer will agonise over his creative work and what others will think of it, and will seek fulfilment from an exotic, fantastic female (in this case it’s Slumdog Millionaire‘s Freida Pinto who gets to be the unfeasibly beautiful scratching post for the male protagonist’s frustrations, and her functional staticness is signaled by having her every scene punctuated by exactly the same extract from a Boccherini piece for guitar); an older woman will resort to irrational, hysterical measures to find happiness; her estranged husband will make a futile stab at rekindling their relationship. Shuffle, play, repeat. Is that a fair list, or am I caricaturing Allen’s recent output? I’m not even sure whether I’m accurately identifying the repetitions: I just know that I feel like I’ve seen it all before.
Another sad tendency in Woody’s recent work is the lacklustre tone – this is a comedy (the jaunty music, bouncy voiceover, farcical situations and perky, affable acting seem to mark it out as one), but there are no jokes. Where once the dialogue, even in his less openly comedic films, was a vessel for a febrile, skewed wit that flattered even as it mocked the pretensions of the culturally comfortable, it is now wholly utilitarian, allowing people to vocalise their desires, the obstacles to their desires, and their position on a given issue. These are films that depend upon their observations of human interaction, but while there’s a strong commitment to depicting the situations that divide people in relationships (competing ambitions, mismatched social class or aesthetic interests), there’s no feel for the way couples speak, the individuated language patterns of euphemism, evasion, familiar shortcuts and easy intimacy that they build together.
Somewhere in the congealing stylings of this artist on auto-pilot, Naomi Watts has to carve out some space to build a performance. Once again she is given the role of the cornered wife, compromised in her career because of her domestic obligations (for cross-reference, you can currently see her essaying this role, probably next door in the same multiplex, in Fair Game, which might just earn its own separate post). Directors seem to be choosing her for these roles partly because of her looks (beauty without artifice, illusion or outlandish perfection), but mainly because her detailed, contained and internalised performances work best in close-up, confined situations where you can best inspect the mask of contentment as it flakes away.
For the most part, Allen defines Watt’s character by surrounding her with women who are nothing like her. Aside from the aforementioned Pinto, who distracts and enraptures her husband (Josh Brolin) just by being a fantasy figure who doesn’t change or resist, there’s Lucy Punch’s Charmaine, an actress/prostitute now engaged to marry (for money) Watt’s father, played by Anthony Hopkins. Charmaine is the latest in a long line of chatty tramps from allen films; he deploys them to provide contrast to the refined discourse of the central protagonists – rather than show them doing or saying anything sophisticated (Allen’s characters are barely able to articulate their fascination with their endless visits to operas, recitals and art exhibitions, except to say that they like it all a lot), he juxtaposes with a woman who, like Charmaine, appears in science fiction films and doesn’t know who Heisenberg is. It’s not subtle – look at the mirroring in this pair of shots, the two couples, one in black, exuding skeptical bemusement at the untutored specimen running her mouth in front of them, the other in white, awkwardly jabbering at cross-purposes about themselves.
It is to Punch’s credit that, in perfect concert with Hopkins’s nuanced outline of a man trying to buy a vicarious experience of youth in its most garish packaging, she manages to make her character a garrulous opportunist when she could have just been the degenerate floozy I bet she found in the script. It’s difficult to imagine that Nicole Kidman was originally cast in the role, but that would surely have emphasised even more this mirror effect even more, given the close parallels between Kidman and Watt’s lives and careers.
There’s a fine scene where Watts has to hear the news that she has missed, thanks to her dogged loyalty to her waster of a husband, the opportunity for possible salvatory romance with Antonio Banderas. As she realises simultaneously that the moment has passed, and that it might even have been imagined, you can see the entirety of her situation play out across her face in a sequence of emotional flickers that show her battling to keep her composure. There’s no melodrama, no breakdown. Just facial muscles wrestling with each other to reconcile competing orders to show resilience, vulnerability, yearning and fortitude.