By Kim Hollis
January 25, 2010
If it were released today, Annie Hall would most likely be a quirky indie flick. The protagonists, Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) each have their own eccentricities. Alvy is a New York comedian who seems to be easily annoyed by poseurs but who also is afflicted by a whole pile of neuroses. When he meets Wisconsin transplant Annie, he's charmed by her small-town simplicity and falls for her almost instantly. For her part, Annie marches to her own beat, dressing differently from other New York women and effortlessly tossing off such turns of phrase as "La-dee-dah." These characters are totally offbeat, yet it's easy for the viewer to connect with them.
The film follows them through the years, as they break up, get back together and break up again. Annie shows some significant personal growth, taking a number of college courses and getting real value from her visits with a counselor, while Alvy seems destined to tread water. He resents Annie for the changes she is making even as he is the one who encouraged her in those directions in the first place.
From my description, it probably doesn't sound like the movie is really very funny, but that's not the case at all. I laughed out loud a number of times, and the story is presented in such a fashion that even as Alvy is letting his neuroses own his personality, we still (mostly) like him. The movie doesn't ask us to root for him, which helps. Instead, we're just along for the ride, witness to his odd series of interpersonal relationships. He's like that friend that constantly feels compelled to do the wrong thing despite your best advice. Given that Alvy breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly several times throughout the film, I'm certain this is intentional.
One big reason the movie succeeds is because Annie is likable even if she's highly unusual. When she laughs nervously and uncontrollably, it's infectious and charming. Annie is accepting of her own foibles and shortcomings, and finds ways to work through them to become better than she was before. Keaton is breezy and whimsical in the role, and it's easy to see why she got enough attention to win the Best Actress Oscar that year.
In the realm of the rom-com, it's also refreshing to watch a movie like Annie Hall because it doesn't fall into the predictable trappings that so typically bog down such movies of the genre. In an average romantic comedy, we usually know exactly what is going to happen to the characters within the first ten minutes. If the journey to the end is entertaining, that can be fine, but it's usually a real problem with the format. In Annie Hall, the movie starts somewhere in the middle of Alvy and Annie's story, and we're never really sure where their relationship is going - even up to the end. Alvy finally becomes bold enough to make a very big move at one point, but we're not given the rote reconciliation. Just as happens so often in life, the characters have changed and as a result, their relationship must evolve as well. The only happy ending is in a wishful play Alvy writes before the movie's close.
Something that is striking about Annie Hall is that Allen chose to use very little music. Annie sings a couple of tunes, but there is no score. Instead, the audience is just left to listen to the dialogue and yes, Annie Hall is a very talky movie. But the conversation is certainly worth listening to, because the issues that Annie and Alvy are dealing with haven't gone away. Couples still struggle with occasional (or frequent) sexual incompatibility. Sometimes one partner may criticize the other, only to realize that their complaints were unfounded in the first place. And occasionally, two people can come to realize that even though they really, really like each other, they shouldn't be together.
As I watch the films from the AFI list, a common theme seems to be how timeless each one is. This certainly holds true for Annie Hall, and I would contend that it's a film that has had a huge impact on a number of the better romantic comedies of the past 35 years or so. In particular, I noticed that When Harry Met Sally paid Allen's film homage in a variety of ways, from Meg Ryan's wardrobe (she wears a very similar outfit to one of Annie's at a point), to some framing shots in New York City, to the usage of the song "It Had to Be You."
Even though the story itself is enduring, it is fascinating to see the New York City of the early '70s portrayed as dirty and dank. I know that the city has evolved over the years as the residents take a real pride in their city, but at that point, it was almost a badge of honor to brave the challenges presented by living in the metropolis. A lot of people's impressions about NYC persist today, and it's probably largely because filmmakers and television producers presented the city in a certain way for such a significant amount of time.
As is the case with many of the AFI films I've watched so far, I could see myself watching Annie Hall again and again, taking something new and valuable from it each time. Its messages about relationships are eternal, and Allen's bold willingness to focus on characters who are so irreverent and peculiar means that audiences aren't just left watching caricatures of romantic archetypes. Give me Annie Hall any day over the predictable machinations of, well, any Katherine Heigl, post-Knocked Up .