In theory, good romantic comedies shouldn’t be difficult to produce. We’ve all been in love. We all like to laugh. What’s the problem? The problem is that the makers of romantic comedies tend to overvalue two things: plot and closure. It makes sense that they overvalue these things, because they’re stressed in every storytelling class and how-to book. But they have little to do with real-life romance.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Annie Hall is, first and foremost, a great comedy. It’s narrated by Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), who claims, in the movie’s first scene, that he’s “not a morose type … not a depressive character.” But his favorite movie is The Sorrow and the Pity, and he philosophically divides life into “the horrible” and “the miserable.” This contradiction between Alvy’s view of himself (as a charming, anti-intellectual lothario) and his real self (a smart, hand-wringing neurotic) is one of the built-in conceits that make everything in the movie funny.
Given Allen’s early career as a stand-up comic, it’s not surprising that Annie Hall is full of classic one-liners, like “Don’t knock masturbation; it’s sex with someone I love,” and “I can’t get with any religion that advertises in Popular Mechanics,” and “I don’t want to live in a city (L.A.) where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.” But unlike the single persona on which great stand-up is built, Alvy and Annie (Diane Keaton) create a conversational rhythm that manage to be both true to experience and hilarious, as in this exchange:
Annie: This tie’s a present from Grammy Hall.
Alvy: Who? Grammy… . Grammy Hall?
Annie: Yeah, my grammy.
Alvy: What are you … What did you do, grow up in a Norman Rockwell painting?
Annie: I know. It’s pretty silly, isn’t it?
Alvy: My grammy never gave gifts. She was too busy getting raped by Cossacks.
Allen made it seem winning to approach romance from the detached perspective of a phobic, but moments like this first kiss would be much more difficult to pull off in real life:
Alvy: Hey, listen. Gimme a kiss.
Alvy: Yeah, why not? Because we’re just gonna go home later, right, and there’s gonna be all that tension, you know, we never kissed before, and I’ll never know when to make the right move or anything. So we’ll kiss now, we’ll get it over with, and then we’ll go eat. OK? We’ll digest our food better…”
(They share a relatively quick kiss)
Alvy: OK? So now we can digest our food…
Still, the movie manages to be genuinely romantic. This is because most romantic comedies, to return to the original point, are hung up on standing out. They have some terrible gimmick (What Women Want), or they feature unrealistic matches (Knocked Up), or they star a hooker (Pretty Woman), or they impose arbitrary time limitations (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), or they commit a handful of sins at once (What Happens in Vegas; and I wouldn’t even allow that movie into the conversation, except that it’s grossed almost $80 million. Shameful.) Annie Hall doesn’t bother with any of that. It understands instinctively that the experiences that matter in this realm are quotidian and universal. One person’s romantic experiences entertainingly presented as they are — some pointless, some embarrassing, some hopeful — should be enough.
Before we even see Alvy and Annie meet, we flash forward to a scene in which they try to wrangle lobsters on the kitchen floor. (“We should have gotten steaks, ‘cause they don’t have legs.”) The way the script hops around in time is perfectly suited to the way our minds and hearts process romantic memories. The ’70s were a very good decade for Allen. And it’s possible that Manhattan, with its black and white cinematography, is a more stunning achievement. But Annie Hall remains a near-perfect romantic comedy — a feat flattered by the great numbers who have tried to match it and failed.
John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.
Annie Hall / John Williams
Film | June 27, 2008 | Comments ()