Sunday, August 13, 2006

Woody Allen and Steve Martin Reveal Themselves as Twins Separated at Birth (Match Point and Shopgirl move review)

(warning some plot spoilers below)

I generally don’t think of Woody Allen and Steve Martin as all that similar as personalities.  Allen’s identity is deeply rooted in being Jewish, being from New York, and neurotically anxious.  Martin’s identity has largely been Southern California, being relentlessly white, and more in the comic tradition of the clown with a mask.  Where most people assumed that Allen’s persona was some extension of his real self, Martin’s wild and funny guy was always elusive at a personal level.  His material rarely revealed anything about his real life self or his non-stage personality.  

The two men, however, have enjoyed surprisingly similar career arcs.  Both have roots in standup comedy and as comedy writers. Allen started with the "Show of Shows" (the relatively short-lived but critically loved fifties television variety show) and Martin started with the "Smothers Brothers Show" which arguably was the sixties version of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Both owe some of their career to Carl Reiner (Allen through Show of Shows and Martin through his first movie, “The Jerk”)  Both have always combined slapstick with an incongruous philosophical bent.  Both have a thing for anachronistic music.  Allen plays Dixieland clarinet.  Martin used to incorporate the banjo into his act and has ties to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Eventually, both men segued from being “comics” to mostly making movies.  After starting with movies played almost exclusively for laughs, each stripped back the schtick to move on to more serious films and some claim to “auteurship”.  

  Allen negotiated the turn roughly when “Annie Hall” darkened into “Manhattan” with a brief trip to his inner Ingmarr Bergmann in “Interiors”. Martin started playing with the possibility some time after "Roxanne", though he still plays funny guys when he appears in other people’s movies.  Thanks to the slightly asynchronous magic of renting dvd’s, I was struck by how two of the most successful comic minds in America managed to make startlingly similar movies, Allen’s  “Match Point”  and Martin’s “Shopgirl” (directed by Anand Tucker but written and clearly shaped by Martin) at almost exactly the same time.

“Match Point” is the tale of a retired tennis pro, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who marries well (the wife is played by the unfailingly excellent Emily Mortimer from “Dear Frankie” and “Lovely and Amazing”) but finds himself unable to resist his more passionate attraction to a failed American actress, Scarlett Johansson.  Historically, the post-comic Allen has been a restless movie-making spirit. Allen has dabbled in genres or parodies of genre as diverse as documentary (Zelig), the musical “Everybone Says I love You”, gangster playwrights “Bullets Over Broadway”, and the nature of narrative itself “Melinda and Melinda”.  In fact, the one thing one might have said about Allen’s movies over the last twenty years is that he’s made a fetish of not repeating himself.  That said, “Match Point” is rather surprisingly a near exact reprise of the themes and plot of his 1989 movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors” with Martin Landau and Angelica Huston standing in for Rhys-Meyers and Johansson.  

Some have called Woody Allen America’s most European film maker in that he pointedly eschews flash for a more intimate style that explores personality in favor of plot or glitz.  Probably the most notable thing about "Match Point" is that the neurotic New York Jewish perspective that trademarked his early movies has disappeared entirely and that Allen completes the transformation by moving his milieu and most of his characters to London.  It is as if Alan Konigsberg (Allen’s birth name) became a movie-making version of Zelig, one of his own fictional creations.  Allen’s world becomes British manor houses, tennis clubs, and the sex lives of wealthy people who have none of Allen’s body-image issues. The only remnant of the standup comedian that remains are his formerly incongruous metaphysical references.  Match Point in some ways is a modernized take on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  

Martin’s “Shopgirl” is the story of the young woman, Claire Danes,  who works the glove counter at an upscale department store in Beverly Hills who catches the fancy of a wealthy older man, Steve Martin.  Where the original Steve Martin once made balloon animals and red rubber noses to get laughs, the Martin of “Shopgirl” is too reserved for his own good.  Jason Schwartzman plays an updated version of Woody Allen’s original persona as Dane’s clueless would be boyfriend whose character somehow both parallels and crosses Martin’s (at one point literally so).  

     While Martin dabbles a bit more in the older man-younger woman thing, a quality that got it compared to “Lost in Translation” which happens to star Scarlet Johansson  opposite Bill Murray, Allen and Martin’s films share themes in a way that’s more than a little striking.  Both explore love triangles in which the inter-relationship of passion, love, the power that comes with money, and morality plays a prominent role. In both movies, one leg of the triange is less a person than wealth itself.  In each case, the Rhys-Meyer’s and Dane’s characters happen to be imbued with artistic sensitivities.  Dane’s character draws, we later learn quite well, and Rhys-Meyer’s loves opera (Allen uses this to mount an operatic plot).  Allen and Martin use the artistic bent to suggest that both characters have sophisticated souls that belie their origins.  

     Martin’s character in “Shopgirl” is a classic rich man who appears to have been emotionally-stunted by his own material success.  His swimming pool is always empty, his two houses untouched by the presence of anyone else, and he is repeatedly shown eating take out food by himself while watching television alone in his kitchen.  Even his courtship of Danes is materialistic.  Rather artfully, Martin gets us to like the guy despite all this, because he keeps sending the message that the character who is a professional “logician” wants to be emotionally capable of the risk of intimacy.  One is led to believe that he genuinely likes Danes yet plays out the cad role at a deeply unconscious level.  

     Rhys-Davies is made out to be an individual who knows better, because he’s not much removed from his roots as a working class young man who used his talent for tennis to pull himself closer to the upper classes.  While his wife and in-laws are all made out to be perfectly agreeable and unusually generous with his marriage into the family, a life of wealth has in some way bought off his conscience.  He likes Mortimer but is more attracted in ways that he can’t control to the lifestyle that comes with it.  Like Martin’s movie, Allen makes us feel something for the ultimate cad as a victim of circumstance, a man who somehow got in over his head without even knowing it.

     In each movie, fate or synchronicity plays a significant role in the plot.  In Martin’s movie Schwartzman happens in and out of Danes’s life at key moments.  In Allen’s movie a metaphorical net point determines Rhys-Davies’s fate.  Visually, both movies present the trappings of wealth with a kind of shallow shininess.  In each case, the movie leaves the viewer sensing that too much money corrupts the heart.  
     Over the years, Allen’s personal life has become a bit too well known.  As his love life became more notorious, Woody Allen himself has noticeably withdrawn from his own movies though he has on occasion used Jason Biggs and Will Ferrell as surrogates for his old on screen persona.  Strangely “Match Point” is an example of the paradox of the more a film maker tries to hide, the more personal things seem to become.  While there is no indication that Allen’s affair and eventual marriage to his “stepdaughter” with Mia Farrow has caused him any guilt.  “Match Point” is a meditation on the guilt that comes with succumbing to forbidden and arguably incestuous passion.  Allen, who was quite a decent tennis player himself (something many people don’t know is that the actual Allen is both competent athletically and musically), is never far from Rhys-Meyers inner self and he makes the viewer feel it.  You like the character so much that by the end of the movie you are rooting for him to get away even though you know perfectly well what he’s done.  In some way, I suspect Allen still longs to be loved and embraced by his public the way he once was.  “Match Point” is almost an attempt to play that out in an almost Jungian fashion.  The more Allen tries to convince you that the movie has nothing to do with him, the more you realize that he’s playing out his own sense of loss and in a small way expressing his own regrets.

     Martin has largely kept his personal life out of the tabloids, despite the fact that he was linked to Anne Heche who was also linked to Ellen DeGeneres.  Martin’s only marriage was to Victoria Tennant who was in his early movie “The Man with Two Brains” and has also been linked to Sex and the City’s Kristin Davis and Broadway mainstay Bernadette Peters (“Pennies from Heaven”)  He has been in some ways the rare celebrity who has enjoyed considerable personal success and fame while keeping what appears to be a genuinely private private life.  It is, however, hard to watch “Shopgirl” without thinking that Martin wanted to tell us something very personal about the way money and fame can interfere with one’s ability to connect emotionally with someone else.  While I doubt that Martin in real life has picked up department store clerks, he very skillfully uses the metaphor of her role as a glove saleswoman to suggest that Martin’s own character is slightly afraid of actually touching things and getting his heart dirty.  The narration implies that Martin picked Danes to woo because she at first glance appeared so inappropriate by reasons of age, station, and education as a candidate for a serious relationship.

     Martin’s character though longs for what he refuses to risk.  Much of the movie is a sort of emotional thriller about whether or not he will finally develop the necessary awareness.  Some of Martin’s earlier movies like “Pennies from Heaven” and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” have revealed his own deep affection for movies and movie styles of the past.  “Shopgirl”, with its near Dickensian title, has the feel of a thirties morality/romance a la Ernst Lubitsch.  This, however, may be the first time that Martin has tried to reveal something intensely personal as if he took “LA Stories” and asked himself the question what does all this really say about me.

Outside the psychologist’s couch aspect of the two films, both succeed largely because the directors get fine performances out of their actors.  Rhys-Meyers and Martin both manage to make cads likeable enough for the viewer to buy into the story.  Johansson is simply one of the best actresses of her generation.  In “Match Point” she combines her character’s overflowing sexual appeal with a haunted psyche that comes right to the point of going to the limit without drifting into parody.  

Danes brings a non-cookie cutter attractiveness to the screen that’s rather refreshing and the director uses her ability to shift from frumpy to erotic when she feels desired by shooting her distinctive nose from different angles.  She also brings off her character’s slightly depressed quality with a few minimal strokes, a tug at a dress, shots of her preparing for dates, and an occasional quizzical yet blank look.  When she finally gets to her confrontation with Martin’s character, she’s able to convince you that she is the sort of person who can make the choice she does.  Schwartzman is one of the funniest actors I’ve seen recently.  In the laundromat scene where he attempts to pick up Danes, he uses things like his out of focus conversational distance and stabs of eye contact to bring off a goofy but unexpectedly appealing character in just a few frames.  Bridgett Wilson is also quite funny in her stock role as the blonde gentlemen don’t actually prefer who works the perfume counter.  

To be honest, I miss the funny Woody Allen and Steve Martin, but both are still making interesting-well crafted movies.  “Match Point” and “Shopgirl” would both be worth a look even if you’d never found either entertainer funny at all.

other reviews here



At 8/15/2006 03:32:00 PM, Blogger inkyhack said...

I'm a big fan of both Allen and Martin (Martin and Allen?), but I have to admit I haven't seen much of any of their movies in the past four or five years. I really need to add some of their newer stuff to my Netflix list.

At 8/15/2006 03:54:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Frighteningly enough, I think I've only not seen one Woody Allen movie. (at least the ones he's directed) At some point, it's more a habit than anything else.

I'm not sure what people who didn't start with him as the "funny" guy think though.

I was honestly pretty surprised by how much I liked Shopgirl, though the narration is a bit distracting.


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