40. Annie Hall (1977)

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Shelley Duvall, Paul Simon, Christopher Walken

Much of Woody Allen’s early directorial efforts, although some of them are excellent, lean more towards farce and slapstick. 1972’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)” is perhaps the most unique sex comedy I’ve ever seen. 1973’s “Sleeper” is Allen’s only extended attempt at sci-fi comedy and, although still one of my favorites of his, cannot be taken too seriously. 1975’s “Love and Death” is an hilarious romantic comedy set during the era of Napoleon Bonaparte. But it wasn’t until 1977’s “Annie Hall” that Allen abandoned broad comedy for more serious subjects. The end result of that decision not only paved the way for many other classic Woody Allen features; but also on its own, “Annie Hall” holds up to this day as one of Allen’s greatest achievements.

Alvie Singer (Woody Allen) is a neurotic New York stand-up comedian who is obsessing over the end of his relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), which drew to its inevitable conclusion a year earlier. With the film’s opening scene, Allen uses the method of “breaking the fourth wall,” or having his character talk directly to the audience (a method he continues to employ as the film progresses). This gets me to pay attention and become involved in his plight almost immediately. Alvie takes us on a non-linear tour of his life up to this point, including his time spent living under the Coney Island roller coaster as a child. We are also witness to his two failed marriages, the first of which is to Allison Portchnik (Carol Kane), with whom he avoids sex through arguing over the JFK second gunman theory.

Then, one fateful day on a tennis court, Alvie meets Annie. So much alike are these two that they even think the same things about how foolish/too intellectual they must seem like to the other person who is otherwise too nice to say so. They have fun together and seem the perfect match. Alvie even encourages Annie to get serious about pursuing a singing career. But Alvie’s neurosis eventually gets the better of him again. His insecurities come to the forefront anytime the subject of her prior relationships are brought up, and he gets jealous when she’s talking to other men, in particular a record producer from Los Angeles (Paul Simon). He’s also uncomfortable around Annie’s family, especially her brother and grandmother. Once they do break up, Alvie seeks out the answer to the riddle of what makes a lasting relationship, even walking up to total strangers to quiz them on what keeps them together. What Alvie is left with is a very insightful conclusion about the often futile nature of relationships and why we remain so desperate to seek them out.

If I had to pick one aspect of “Annie Hall” that I enjoy the most, it is that “breaking the fourth wall” I mentioned earlier. In particular, watch for a scene very early on in the movie where Alvie is taking Annie on a date to the movies to see “The Sorrow and the Pity.” There’s a guy standing in line with them rather loudly offering his critique on the work of philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Alvie has had enough of this clown so he steps out of line and, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat, brings McLuhan in to chastise the guy for completely misinterpreting him. It’s a scene that’s so perfectly done that it doesn’t require you to know who the heck McLuhan is (and most, myself included, probably won’t). It’s just brilliant. Another great moment comes when Alvie has a private chat with Annie’s brother Dwayne (Christopher Walken). What Dwayne has to say disturbs Alvie so much that, with Dwayne driving, Alvie squirms in his car seat the whole way to the airport. There are other notable future stars in the cast in addition to Walken. Look fast for Beverly D’Angelo (of the Chevy Chase “Vacation” movies) on a TV soap opera, and Sigourney Weaver as Alvie’s date outside the movie theater near the end of the film.

“Annie Hall” won four Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress (Diane Keaton) and Best Picture. Yes, “Star Wars” was the big blockbuster hit that year, but “Annie Hall” is the best picture of 1977. I miss the usual patented Woody Allen jazz soundtrack (the opening and closing credits are both silent), but it would have been horribly out of place in this movie. There are those who will argue that 1979’s “Manhattan” is Woody Allen’s best movie (Allen himself not being one of them), but I contend that “Annie Hall” is not only his best but also his most influential work. In addition to setting the path for the better part of the last 35 years of his directorial career, it can also be said to have inspired at least in part films such as “When Harry Met Sally…,” “(500) Days of Summer,” and “Chasing Amy.”

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