Everything you wanted to know about Woody
The name Woody Allen evokes a host of reactions. Whether you see him as an uncompromising auteur, the ne plus ultra of Jewish comedians, or the ogre that Mia Farrow would have you believe him to be, it's hard to avoid having a pre-conceived notion of what Allen is all about. The fact that he's been making about a movie per year for 40 years certainly provides a lot of material from which to form an opinion. Myself, I've never cared for him as an artist, and haven't even managed to sit through an entire Allen film. So why am I reviewing a book about Woody Allen's work? Because Jason Bailey, Wichita native, New York film critic and man about town, has written a book about which the adjective "ultimate" can appropriately be used, and the readers of F5 should know about it.
The Ultimate Woody Allen Film Companion is more than just a survey of Allen's films, though it is that. It also has guest essays discussing Allen's views on philosophy, how Jews and Judaism play a role in his art and Allen's "European phase." Bailey wants to do more than simply list the films and talk about their significance; he wants to get into Allen's head, figure out what it is that drives him to make the films he does (differently than almost anyone else) and why he returns to the same themes over and over.
The book compares and contrasts his comedies with his more serious works and his early broad comedies with his later sophisticated and ambiguous ones. Bailey is not merely an Allen cheerleader or fanboy, however. He points out, perhaps with a hint of sadness, when Allen doesn't quite succeed, which is inevitable for a director with this volume of output. He also trumpets the overlooked gems in Allen's canon.
Bailey also highlights what Allen himself thinks of the films, and sometimes the director's opinion is at odds with the popular or critical reception of his works.
A capsule review of every film that Woody either wrote or directed is included with comments on how it fits into his cinematic context, themes and even sometimes what was going on in Allen's life at the time.
Bailey traces Allen's evolution from youthful comedy writer and stand-up to broadly comic filmmaker to a director who is comfortable with serious drama, subtle humor or the mixing of the two.
This is a very engaging book, managing to hold the keen interest of even someone like me who cares little for Allen or his work.
Bailey's style is light and easy to read but still manages to dig into more philosophical or abstruse themes without getting bogged down or dry.
I'd recommend this book to any Allen fan or even someone who simply wants to be able to discuss him intelligently at parties.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must point out that Bailey is a friend of mine. (And former F5 film critic.) I danced at his wedding. We've had dinner and watched movies and talked. I've tried not to let that interfere too much with this review, but the reader ought to know. Regardless of our relationship, I truly enjoyed The Ultimate Woody Allen Film Companion, and I think you will, too.