Sometimes there’s no dignity in a director working too far past his prime. If Charlies Chaplin continued to make movies after “A Countess from Hong Kong,” they would likely have come off as creaky and crudely dated as Woody Allen’s last several films, and just as embarrassing as this one, a disaster on so many levels – the directing, the acting, and especially the writing, the one area of Allen’s attempt at creativity that never reached competency. This script seems to come from someone too isolated, too old and yet too short on actual experience to know how we live today. And Allen certainly doesn’t know how we talk. That’s because Allen isn’t a writer; he’s a recycler of sentimental plots and character from the films of his youth. Those antique twists and plot points are woven into his scripts like those quaint old jazz tunes that decorate his soundtracks. Every single actor who has a speaking part in this film humiliates him or herself, flaying around without apparent direction, delivering Allen’s ghastly, over-written dialogue with no one sensible enough to halt the excess. When some of the actors disappear from the story, as many do, it’s a merciful escape. But the damage is already done. We don’t miss them, and we shudder when they return. Those who must reappear more frequently, because the hold the plot together, are merely subjected to another round of degradation. And we don’t want them back either. Timothee Chalamet, the Woody Allen stand-in, becomes especially more reprehensible with each reappearance. But poor Elle Fanning, a remarkably game actor, does the best she can in a role designed to mortify her in every scene. How I despised Woody Allen’s mean-spirited treatment of her character! Nothing about the background of this vacuous dimwit, who somehow made it from Arizona to a prestigious private college in Upstate New York, makes psychological or even sociological sense. Allen wants us to share in his revulsion for her, but he overreaches to such a bullying extent that I was actually pulling for her throughout.
I know he’s made a few film in Europe, but the experience hasn’t made Allen any more of an artist. His famous confinement to his home base has only deepened and made off-putting his New York chauvinism. His script never wastes an opportunity to say something disparaging about Arizona or any community beyond his own shrinking society. Snobbery can be forgiven, even pleasing, if it’s delivered with conspiratorial wit. But there is no real wit in these anti-rube jabs – just oafish bigotry. And age has seemed to increase Allen’s bitterness towards hyper-Wasp characters, particularly women, probably because he has known them only as the tony types who appeared to him in a lifetime of movie watching, a habit that somehow never made him the artist he longed to be. In my mind, Cherry Jones, playing Chalamet’s ultra-patrician mother, will never recover from that disastrously hokey self-disclosure scene with her son. Listen closely to her story. It’s the kind of clumsy plot twist that only the dullest or most derivative imagination could come up with, the kind that gets a callow student author laughed out a writer’s workshop.
Allen is at his best in interviews, where he is shockingly honest and accurate about his achievements. By his own admission, whatever ambitions Allen sought as a filmmaker remain far from fulfilled. Despite this, I’ve adored many of his films and revisit them often. I am completely oblivious to the shortcomings he insists are there, so I continue to enjoy his movies, nonetheless. But I felt no joy in this one, and I take no pleasure in acknowledging that this charmless and inept film has convinced me that Woody Allen is a filmmaker in serious decline – too old, too out of touch with life, and perhaps to bitter to produce anything humorous, enjoyable or believable. Chaplin knew what to do when he reached this point. And it saved him from further humiliation, while preserving his legacy. But with “Rainy Day in New York,” and a few before it, Allen has gone beneath his nadir. Whatever legacy he earned may be well past preserving.