[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
In Annie Hall Woody Allen has created his most personal, most serious, most painfully funny, and best film. The first three don’t necessarily imply the last, but in this case that’s the way it works out. The concern with the interrelation between comedy and pain—a transformation of the earlier Allen’s more prosaic concern with love and death—is the center of the film, as it is the center of the life of standup comic Alvy Singer, Allen’s thinly disguised portrait of himself. The simultaneous egocentricity and self-denigration implied in Allen’s portrayal of Singer—and, indeed, in Allen himself—is summed up in his delivery of a classic joke in his opening, Bergmanesque monologue. Like most of the jokes Freud cites in his Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, it’s not the kind of joke you laugh at: “I wouldn’t want to join a club that would have me for one of its members.” True, Allen’s throwaway style evokes a chuckle; but for Alvy Singer there is more painful truth in this paradox of a joke than there is comic hilarity. It’s actually the second of two jokes that open the film, the first being an even less laughable one about life being ugly, miserable, depressing, and all too short.
The proposition that life is both agonizing and dear is sustained throughout. When record entrepreneur Tony Lacy invites Alvy Singer to a party that promises to be “very mellow,” Alvy declines, explaining, “When I get too mellow I ripen, and then I rot.” The vision of life-vs.-death pervades everything (“All the books you ever gave me had Death in the title,” girlfriend Annie Hall complains), and the double-layered vision is reflected emphatically in the film’s imagery. Alvy was born and raised in a house underneath the rollercoaster at Coney Island: superficial joy on top of nervous depression: corrosive death gnawing at the underpinnings of assertive life. Alvy’s comedy—and the play he writes about himself and Annie near the end of the film—is his response to pain, and it is a fantasy response. The play ends the way Alvy wishes the real relationship with Annie had climaxed. Elsewhere he casually produces Marshall McLuhan from behind a theater lobby sign to refute the bullshit artist in the ticket line who pontificates about McLuhan without knowing his work. “If life could only be like this!” Alvy tells the camera, acknowledging and embracing his own dependence on a fantasy of a world that will reaffirm and justify him and his ideas. In the film, people on the street don’t mind being stopped by Alvy to give their point of view, or elucidate their corner of the world; and many of them seem to have information and understanding to which he is not privy, though they are happy to share it with him and offer advice.