Greatest hits – Woody Allen: A Documentary review (Sydney Film Festival)

Woody Allen: A Documentary - Directed by Robert B. Weide. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

Woody Allen: A Documentary plays the Sydney Film Festival on June 6 and 11. It is now playing at the ACMI in Melbourne. It arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia June 27, 2012.

The imaginatively titled Woody Allen: A Documentary is a three hour examination of the legendary writer-director produced by PBS for their American Masters program, although the version headed to our shores is the 113-minute theatrical edit. I can’t imagine any fan of Woody‘s not wanting the full 180-minute experience, but I’ll chalk up this new cut’s conciseness as a tribute to the man’s own swift, succinct filmmaking style. We’ll avoid making a “such small portions” joke in respect to the iconic humourist.

Built around interviews with the effortlessly engaging – and still hilarious – Allen himself, Robert B. Weide‘s feature is littered with clips from his early days as a stand-up as well as his impressive filmography, and augmented by famous, fawning talking heads. Many of his significant collaborators, including producer Charles H. Joffe, actors Diane Keaton, Scarlett Johansson, Dianne Wiest, Sean Penn, Owen Wilson, and contemporaries/scholars such as Martin Scorsese and Leonard Maltin, pay their respects in new, archived, or, in the case of Keaton, generously lit footage. Notably absent are his ex-wife Mia Farrow and current wife Soon-Yi Previn. No bonus points for guessing why they evaded questioning.

The doco only offers some insights, but even a minor glimpse into the notoriously private life of Allen – born Allan Konigsberg – is a treat. One such delight is seeing him rifle through his scraps of yet-to-be-produced movie ideas; the man is 76 years old, and even at his current rate of one picture every 12 months, would likely need another half century to complete these projects. Also, the sight of his faithful typewriter, on which he’s written nearly everything in his storied career, is a subtle, breathtaking beauty. You almost want it taken from Allen and placed in the Smithsonian before it disintegrates completely, if it weren’t for the fear that he might stop writing without it.

The interview subjects and b-roll from his 2010 flop You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger amount to little more than you’d normally see on a DVD featurette. The real gold here is the walking tour of New York led by Allen himself, and the snippets of his ageless classics: from 1965′s What’s New Pussycat (where he learned the hard way that writers have little control over films they don’t direct) to the biggest hit of his career, 2011′s Midnight in Paris (before the release of which we see him accede he’ll likely never have another major success), stopping off at Love and Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Bullets Over Broadway, Match Point, and all in between (though most of the 2000s is mercifully glossed over). Weide doesn’t shy away from his notorious failures either, such as the Fellini-inspired Stardust Memories.

And, credit where it’s due; Allen’s personal romances and controversies (often intertwined) are addressed, albeit fleetingly. The lumbering white elephant is his separation from Farrow during the production of Husbands and Wives, following her discovery of Allen’s affair with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi. Forced to continue working together amid the revelation, we’re shown a context-altering scene from their final movie together that one can only watch through clasped fingers. Also reinterpreted are some of his and his character’s more existential rants, now with the knowledge that Allen is even closer to the grave than when he first bleakly considered what lies beyond this world. I would have preferred more of these illuminative sequences in this so-called “completist’s” assessment of one of the world’s greatest artistic talents. Regardless, if this was merely a greatest hits package of Woody Allen’s funniest and finest moments, it would still be absolutely watchable.

3.5/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Woody Allen: A Documentary plays the Sydney Film Festival on June 6 and 11. It is now playing at the ACMI in Melbourne. It arrives on DVD and Blu-ray in Australia June 27, 2012.

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