The depressing creative decline of Woody Allen
I come not to praise Woody Allen’s latest film, but to… wait, it has buried itself, you say? The director’s 49th feature, Rifkin’s Festival, just trickled out with what you might call a boutique release in the USA, across 26 cinemas nationwide.
On Friday and Saturday, this loose trifle about a movie critic (Wallace Shawn) and his much younger wife (Gina Gershon), who reassess their relationship during the San Sebastian Film Festival, made a grand total of $24,000. Streaming figures for the film’s simultaneous premiere on iTunes, Amazon Prime Video and Google Play weren’t available, but you can bet they didn’t exactly put The Masked Singer in the shade.
You might assume this to be the lowest-grossing opening weekend of Allen’s career, but for a nexus of complicated reasons, you’d be wrong. Even though his previous film, the irritatingly jejune A Rainy Day in New York (2019), managed to scrape back most of its budget with an overall gross of $22m worldwide, it opened in America on a measly six screens, at a very bad time in the pandemic (October 2020), and made first weekend takings of just $2,744.
Covid was not the real issue. That one had a much starrier and more youthful cast – Timothée Chalamet, Elle Fanning, Selena Gomez, Jude Law – every one of whom is now routinely asked if they regret working with Allen, after the post-#MeToo wave of renewed allegations about what may, or may not, have happened between the director and his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was seven years old.
Rainy Day was meant to be distributed by Amazon Studios, but as the heat on Allen intensified in late 2018, they dropped it, and also terminated a four-film deal, causing Allen to file a $68 million suit against them for breach of contract. In the course of settling this, distribution rights reverted to him, but the film’s US release was hopelessly downgraded, and the film’s only chance to break even came from relying on its marquee star power in overseas markets less troubled by the toxicity of the Allen brand.
Even during the first wave of #MeToo activism, Allen’s floridly overheated Wonder Wheel (2017) was caught in the critical fray – not least because the plot of that, which asks Justin Timberlake’s lifeguard to choose between a desperate, neurotic mother (Kate Winslet) and her live-in stepdaughter (Juno Temple), so weirdly mirrored the Allen/Mia Farrow/Soon-Yi Previn love triangle. (“The heart has its own hieroglyphics,” Timberlake’s character even argues.) Early-in-the-season awards buzz for Winslet turned to crickets, and she has now said several times that working with Allen was a mistake.
How far do you have to go back to find a Woody Allen film worth redeeming, or at all worth fighting for? Mileage has always varied, on practically everything this famously prolific filmmaker has turned out since the early 1990s. The chic-but-forgettable Café Society (2016), creaky Irrational Man (2015) and generally useless Magic in the Moonlight (2014) were just marking time. In truth, Allen has been in the creative doldrums since the very moment Cate Blanchett won her Best Actress Oscar for Blue Jasmine (2013) – and, his sterner critics would say, for a great deal longer than that.
The bitter rounds of controversy circling Allen with renewed ferocity don’t tend to focus on the work – why should they? But also, how could they? It makes life a lot easier for critics that he isn’t knocking out breezy masterpieces at the same time as being a pariah.
Still, the irreversibility of his creative decline is, if you like, separately depressing. There’s no one else who used to make filmmaking look so easy, with a smooth production machine to get each idea off the ground, and a strike rate of one-film-per-year only Clint Eastwood comes close to rivalling among Allen’s living contemporaries. (Ingmar Bergman, who made 40 mostly amazing films before he was even 60, has them both beat.)
Even in the old days, Allen’s knock-it-out, print-the-first-take approach led to plenty of lazy pictures interspersed with the inspired stuff. Now his films just dribble out with a uniformly so-whattish quality. Each new one offers more of a shrug, seeming less fussed about finding an audience or having anything fresh to say.
It’s quite clear that Allen will never get a cast of the Rainy Day calibre again, because a vanishingly small cadre of actors are willing to deal with the flak guaranteed by appearing in his films. The writing has been on that particular wall since the moment Chalamet returned his Rainy Day salary to several rape charities. Also, after the Amazon Studios bust-up rendered him commercially untouchable in the US, Allen now has European financing as his sole recourse.
Perhaps Catherine Deneuve would be content to work with him – she has, in fact, said so. Allen has a screenplay waiting to shoot in Paris, described as a psychological drama in the Match Point (2005) vein. This might have gone in front of the cameras last year had Covid-19 not scuppered it: in the roiling throes of this pandemic, we grab whatever silver linings we can get.
If he persists, Allen’s crippling inability to read the room can only taint his legacy further. Rifkin’s Festival, which indulges in goofy black-and-white pastiches of all the usual suspects (Fellini, Truffaut, Bergman), is far too feeble to be a dignified swansong. But it does feel like the summing up of something in Allen’s attitudes to art and creative exile – a pretty obvious last gasp, if its creator could only recognise the fact. By this thoroughly fatigued stage, even the French might have to admit that enough is enough.