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Does 'Annie Hall' Actually Suck?

Woody Allen's classic romantic comedy turns 40 this week, so we look back to see how it has aged.

Does It Suck? takes a deeper look at pop cultural artifacts previously adored, unjustly hated, or altogether forgotten, reopening the book on topics that time left behind.

It must have been wonderful watching Annie Hall in 1977. There was neurotic, little Woody Allen as Alvy Singer, seen in a childhood flashback, panicking to a bemused shrink about the universe expanding (and then still obsessed with his own mortality as an adult). There was tall, WASPy Diane Keaton, all fashionably deployed menswear and folksy aphorisms. You'd have sighed, perhaps, as Alvy, an overeducated two-time divorcé pushing 40, molded this lively and naïve younger woman after his own irreparably flawed image. But you might just have let out a sigh of relief (while sobbing) when, instead of devolving into some smug male fantasy, the film ended with Annie dumping him for the last time, because she'd evolved past his antisocial worldview. A perfect ending to one of the saddest stories that can be fairly classified as romantic comedy.

Although his early sex farces had already earned Allen a reputation as one of cinema's smartest, funniest voices, Annie Hall proved he was also a keen observer of real relationships. Decades before Rebecca Solnit's work inspired the "mansplaining" meme and Sheila Heti made a refrain out of "he's just another man who wants to teach me something," in her novel How Should a Person Be?, Allen understood how destructive men's urges to educate and shape women could be. Forty years ago, Annie Hall's Best Picture and Best Director Oscars would've felt like a pure triumph for charming, intelligent filmmaking—even, one suspects, among some of the feminists who'd found Philip Roth's sex-obsessed bestseller Portnoy's Complaint alienating.

But those of us who grew up in the 90s (or later) never got to know a benign, subtly progressive Woody Allen with an untarnished reputation. By then, he had split with his longtime partner, Mia Farrow, and ended up with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, who was 35 years younger than Allen and had presumably once viewed him as a sort of father figure. The darker allegations that emerged during his and Farrow's breakup—that he had sexually abused the couple's seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow—got buried in tabloid confusion, willful public denial, and widespread ignorance about how kids process trauma.

I'm just a year older than Dylan and never heard her story when it first surfaced. So I became a Woody Allen fan, vaguely aware that there was supposed to be something not-right about him, but disinclined to seek out enough information to confirm my worst fears. I'm ashamed to say that it wasn't until Dylan started repeating her accusations, a few years ago, in interviews and a harrowing open letter, that I fully grasped the case against him. And by then, the damage was done: I had seen and, in many cases, loved his films. Especially Annie Hall.

It would be so easy if, viewed from the distance of 40 years, Annie Hall sucked. Unfortunately, it does not. On its own merits, the movie is a masterpiece. Constructed as a jigsaw puzzle spanning nearly two decades of Alvy's love life, it locks together scenes from his previous failed marriages with the story of his charming, then troubled, then death-spiraling affair with Annie. It is full of moments that are quotable because they are so relatable, from Alvy shutting down an art-house cinema snob by conjuring Marshall McLuhan out of thin air to his speech equating his and Annie's relationship with a dead shark. The performances—not just the leads, but also Tony Roberts as Alvy's creepy best friend, Rob, and Carol Kane, Janet Margolin, and Shelley Duvall as his other lovers—are portraits of people who feel real. At just more than 90 minutes, an ideal rom-com length, the script's economy is astounding.

The film has also aged surprisingly well. Annie is the kind of slightly androgynous instant icon whose boyish outfits and gawky mannerisms never feel outdated. Alvy's morbid pessimism seems right at home in this catastrophic second decade of the 21st century. Its depictions of two equally ridiculous cities, New York (rainy, morose, masochistic) and LA (sunny, shallow, bubble-headed), ring as true as ever. A Hollywood party scene where people say things like, "All the good meetings are taken," and "I forgot my mantra," could be relocated, without much of a rewrite, to the contemporary tech industry. And it would be reductive to proclaim Annie Hall's gender politics "feminist," but at the very least, there's quite a bit of nuance to them.

Of course, there are retrograde bits if you're looking—and it's on Allen that no conscientious viewer can watch his movies without assuming the worst. When Rob complains, toward the end, that a call from Alvy interrupted him in bed with 16-year-old twins, an otherwise unremarkable one-liner about Hollywood depravity becomes a callous joke about incest and exploitation (if not quite statutory rape). How could it not?

Less egregiously, there's some lazy "men are like this, women are like that" comedy. In a famous scene where Alvy and Annie have just met, their true thoughts appear on the screen as they feed each other pleasantries. "You're a great-looking girl," he thinks, while complimenting her photography. Meanwhile, she's just hoping he's better than the assholes she's dated before.

For the most part, though, Annie Hall is a sharp dissection of heterosexual romance because Allen understands what Alvy Singer doesn't: that women don't exist purely to fulfill male needs and assuage male insecurities. More than once, Annie shuts down Alvy's dismissal of her complaints as merely a sign that she has her period. Her ultimate rejection of him, over his insistence that she still loves him, is framed not as an essentially feminine act of cruelty, but as the inevitable result of his stunted capacity for personal growth. The play he writes about their relationship, with a "happy" ending where Annie has an epiphany that she loves him, comes across as transparently pathetic. Allen even gets that men and women can unwittingly hurt their partners in similar ways. Just as Alvy slowly tires of Kane's Allison, Robin slowly tires of him.

I'm not sure if Duvall's rock journalist is necessarily meant to mirror Alvy, babbling confidently and at length about topics that clearly don't interest her date. But the Marshall McLuhan guy, with his glasses and distinctively Allen-style haircut, is surely a doppelgänger and a clue that Alvy is more of a pretentious windbag than he realizes. He is, in fact, a totally unreliable narrator. In the film's opening monologue, he casually mentions he's always had "some trouble between fantasy and reality." Alvy may love to talk about himself, but other people's assessments of him are sharper than his own, and most of those other people are women.

Not that any of this somehow renders Allen innocent of crimes against women and girls, or counterbalances any of the allegations against him. Behind the camera, he may be the enlightened version of Alvy—who, as a comedian who's had two marriages and a transformative romance with a character based on Diane Keaton, is among Woody's most autobiographical protagonists. You can't accuse him of failing to meditate on his shortcomings, but you also can't assume that his films are an entirely accurate reflection of who he is.

Just because Allen demonstrated an evolved perspective on gender politics doesn't mean his behavior matches those beliefs. We live in a country that elected a president who bragged openly about his groping exploits, then declared April "National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month." When it comes to famous white men accused of sexual violence, there is no limit to the hypocrisy we'll tolerate. If anything, Allen's understanding that women are discrete, complex individuals, and that men often behave like monsters toward them, out of entitlement or immaturity, makes his personal history even more upsetting.

Unless you're comfortable denying real people's pain and suffering, there is no way to experience Annie Hall as audiences 40, or even ten, years ago did. But erasing the film from the canon wouldn't help anyone, either. We can't pretend it's misogynistic or flat-out bad. Even former fans who've stopped seeing Allen's new movies, because the idea of putting money in his pocket makes us queasy, can't deny the impact his earlier work had on us.

The decision to keep revisiting Annie Hall isn't merely selfish, though. It also forces us to remember that the man facing a serious, long-standing child sexual assault accusation, the man who married his former partner's young daughter and the man who gave us one of cinema's most vital depictions of love and heartbreak are the same person. In that sense, Annie Hall is a work of art whose meaning has surpassed its creator's intentions. What was once an untarnished classic is now a record of an artist's failure to live up to his own worldview.

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