Love and Death (1975)

Posted: February 19, 2015 in Movie Review
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Love and Death (1975)

Director: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton

Several of Woody Allen’s early films, on top of being slapstick comedy, all deal with a common theme: Revolution. “Bananas” and “Sleeper” both featured plot which centered around political uprisings whose ultimate goal was the overthrow of the oppressive government in charge, with varying degrees of success. In each film, Allen played a man who cared for love, not war, yet found himself carrying out the game-changing mission all the same. With “Love and Death,” Allen once again reached for this kind of story … with varying degrees of success.

Boris Grushenko (Woody Allen) is a man who wants nothing to do with war or fighting, and yet never seems to be able to get himself out of it, try though he might. Boris is considered a coward for not standing up in defense of Mother Russia, even by his own mother. What he wants most of all is to be married to his cousin, twice removed, Sonja (Diane Keaton). Sadly, he is disappointed to learn that she is marrying another. To make matters worse, Boris is enlisted in the Army and becomes a war hero completely by accident. Later, Sonja’s husband dies tragically and, after Boris becomes engaged in a duel, she promises to marry him… but only because she believes he’s about to die. He doesn’t, and their marriage is poverty-stricken and filled with philosophical debate. Hey, at least they’re both intellectuals, right? Where they really run into trouble is when the French, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, decide to invade. Sonja gets it into her head that it’s up to them to put a stop to Napoleon. Boris, who has been shown to be preoccupied with death (particularly his own) doesn’t like the sound of this, but goes along with the doomed plot anyway.

A parody of Russian literature, with special nod to both Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, admittedly there’s probably a lot of in-joke references which get lost on me. In the case of Allen’s own work, the foreknowledge of his succeeding films at least helps one appreciate what he was trying to do with “Love and Death.” Falling between “Sleeper” and “Annie Hall,” “Love and Death” serves as a transitional piece between Allen’s early, silly comedies and his later, more serious efforts, much in the same way that The Beatles’ “Revolver” album bridges the gap between the group’s previous achievements and the game-changing music that was still yet to come.

Not the biggest Diane Keaton fan, I can still honestly say that Woody Allen always brings out the best in her. This time he truly needed her, as she’s easily the best thing “Love and Death” has going for it. Most everyone else seems to be working on autopilot. Even Allen himself is really reaching for laughs on this one. He will string several cliched one liners together, and then try to save the moment by commenting in-character on the fact that those lines are cliched. His occasional breaking of the fourth wall, on the other hand is always welcome. Another thing I can appreciate about Allen’s films is the appearance of familiar faces among the supporting cast. Playing the part of Napoleon is James Tolkan, who no matter what else I see him in will always be recognizable to me as Mr. Strickland from “Back to the Future.” Likewise, Jessica Harper will surely remain most familiar to me for Dario Argento’s “Suspiria.” Although Harper did not come up while I was sampling some of Argento’s other titles back in December 2014, I am happy to know that I will see her again in Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories.”

I had seen “Love and Death” once before but, as is so often the case, I hadn’t remembered much from the actual plot. I only remembered that I had found it amusing. To my crushing disappointment, the movie isn’t half as clever or witty as I had recalled. Allen referred to it as his funniest film up to that point. I wish I could agree. In fact, I cannot recall laughing more than once during the entire first half. The second half is better, as I have mentioned, thanks in large part to Diane Keaton. There’s one marvelous deadpan exchange of dialogue towards the end between Keaton and Jessica Harper that I swear is probably ten times as funny if you’re high. If the rest of the movie had been like that, Allen might have been on to something. It might be worth seeing once… or twice, depending on how long you wait in-between screenings. Beyond that, let this revolution go on without you.

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