Come Home, Woody, All (Well, Some) Is Forgiven

Say what you will about Woody Allen, but even his most stern detractors will have to admit that he has a real affinity for a certain milieu. Bluntly put, no filmmaker has captured the foibles and peculiarities of Upper West Side Jewish intellectuals and would-be intellectuals as Allen. He knows that world as well as John Ford knew a U.S. cavalry outpost, and treats it with as much love and amusement.

Understandably, Allen has chosen in the last several years to move away from that world, both literally and artistically. First he began to branch out to include other precincts of the entertainment world, then the recent past and, most recently, Paris and London. The results from the last move have been wildly uneven, ranging from the incisive social drama of Match Point to the embarrassing failed farce of Scoop. With London as his new base and setting, Allen seems to be groping for a footing. His latest film, Cassandra’s Dream, is not a hopeful portent for the future.

Because his focus in his New York films has always been on such a narrowly defined community, Allen has seldom grappled with class differences. In Match Point he rose to the challenge of class surprisingly well, but even there, one could argue, he was seeking an English equivalent of the people he knows well. Cassandra’s Dream is an extreme departure for him, a film centered on a pair of brothers with roots deep in the working class, and his complete lack of feeling for their daily lives sends the film limping out of the gate from the very first scene to the finale.

Terry (Colin Farrell) is an auto mechanic, Ian (Ewan McGregor) aspires to be a dealmaker but right now is managing their father’s restaurant, little more than a diner. Both the brothers and their parents are in the thrall of Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), a globe-trotting doctor with a chain of plastic surgery clinics. Howard is who Ian wants to be. Terry’s ambitions are smaller, but he is a compulsive gambler and hard drinker. When Uncle Howard shows up with a dilemma involving a business associate who is planning rat him out to the authorities over financial improprieties, he asks his nephews to dispose of the problem.

What Allen seems to have in mind here is a classic film noir, with a dark, fate-driven plot in which everyone suffers regardless of their degree of culpability. The title, which is the name of a boat Terry and Ian buy at the beginning of the film, suggests the kind of fatalistic downward spiral Allen has in mind.

The problem is that Allen has no feeling for the blue-collar world he has chosen as his setting. The problem starts with the casting of the leads: McGregor and Farrell are both too charismatic to be convincing as doomed losers and hapless dreamers. The fact that neither of them is exactly believable as a Cockney doesn’t help but that is the least of the film’s problems. Allen simply has no idea how these people talk or think or behave; the relationships between the brothers and their parents, between the parents and Howard, are clich├ęs gleaned from too many late nights re-reading John Osborne and Arnold Wesker.

Allen lacks the visual control necessary to give the film the driven, paranoiac quality of classic noir. Except for the actual murder, which is competently staged, the film is too slack visually to work either as a suspense piece or as an exercise in the working out of inexorable destinies. The result is a long, hard slog that never rings true. It may be time for Woody to come home.

Comments

Arnold Wesker? Are you trying to be obscure? I looked him up and found out he was responsible for The Wesker Trilogy -- well who else would do it? Is he any good? As for Woody, he is coming home. After the two films he already shot in Spain, Woody's next project will be set in NYC. Maybe the Europeans decided it wasn't so much fun sinking their money into his movies and watching it drown. By the way, did Cassandra echo in any meaningful way in the movies? I didn't notice anyone predicting the future accurately and being ignored. Rather lazy of him to make such a prominent allusion and not follow through, no? My real question: maybe you never thought much of Woody (I sure did). But has the sheer awful output of the past two decades seriously damamged and diminished whatever prominence he once had? Can tons of bad movies obscure the good movies you once did? Surely if you made some classics no matter how many awful movies you churn out in the future those will remain classics. But it's hard to remember him ever being considered an important director. Even if you didn't, many many people did and that just doesn't happen anymore.
GEORGE ROBINSON said…
Sigh. Woody is coming home.
Oy, his mother missed him so.

Outside of the fact that everyone meets a dire end, I can't find any evidence of a purpose for the Cassandra allusion. If it was an adaptation, I would say, okay, you're stuck with the title. But it was an original (not very). The man is such a jerk sometimes.

As for Wesker, he was a very important part of the Angry Young Man generation and one of the first British playwrights to examine the lives of Jewish immigrants and their children in London. Was he good? The trilogy isn't bad, I don't know how it would hold up today. His later work is rather whiny.