Annie Hall is 36 years old this year and it still contains more grace and wit in its frames than any other comedy released since. Even now, thinking of it as a Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards comes as a surprise, it’s a low-budget, low-grossing romantic-comedy drama that is as daringly morbid as it is sharply hysterical. Many of its wonderfully written lines have entered the popular consciousness even though many have never even heard of the movie. The line “those that can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym” has been immortalised and is more commonly spoken by those who don’t know of the film and shows that the brilliance of Annie Hall transcends time itself and is an unquestionable classic of American cinema.
Annie Hall, like a lot of Woody Allen’s work is nakedly personal as Allen blends his real life personality with an exaggerated on-screen persona. Allen’s character in Annie Hall is Alvy Singer, a neurotic comic consumed by romance and Ingmar Begman films. Alvy became the template for some of Allen’s most successful characters and even as recent as Midnight in Paris, the central main character has been a funny, intelligent man riddled with insecurities.
The title character, played by Diane Keaton was also the catalyst for many of the women characters that appear in Allen’s movies. She’s intelligent, pretty and distinctive and like many of the women in Allen’s later movies, she leaves him in exasperation. The romance between Alvy and Annie is convincing, dark and heartfelt and is still the benchmark for movie romances. Despite the jokes coming in at a lightning rate, there is always a pain to their romance, driven by Alvy’s pessimistic nature, yet some of the best gags in the movie come from a dark place.
Annie Hall is essentially a film for a fairly narrow audience. Despite its rom-com genes and slick one-liners, many of the jokes will only touch a niche audience as many in the audience will not know who Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Marshall McLuhan are. Retrospectively looking back at Annie Hall also raises the question that comedy has got dumber in the thirty years that have passed since its release. Very few comedy movies released today have the subtlety, the delicacy and the pure wit that Allen can generate. Instead, today’s comedic landscape is flooded with obvious pop-culture references, over-the-top performances and gags forged with the lowest common denominator. The movies produced by Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler, Todd Phillips etc only heighten the preciousness of Woody Allen’s movies.
Annie Hall is a fast-paced pulsating piece of vibrant filmmaking, yet it is mostly composed of people talking to each other. The vast majority of the running time of Annie Hall is spent with the characters talking, whether they’re talking to the camera, walking and talking or making love and talking there is always somebody talking. It makes the movie feel continually fresh and no matter how many times you watch it, there is always something new in it to find and laugh at. It’s not a mystery that Allen is one of the greatest dialogue writers ever and the fast-paced and immensely witty dialogue is what makes Annie Hall such a pleasure.
Annie Hall contains an amount of dare Judd Apatow can only dream of, amplified by the sensational scene early on in the schoolroom where a discussion about Freudian philosophy leads to a young girl declaring “I’m into leather.” That line would probably not get passed the censors these days and producers would likely urge Allen to take the line out, but the scene has become one of Allen’s most iconic. Woody Allen can make a joke out of anything, regardless of social taboo and he always has you laughing out loud.
There is always much to ponder about Annie Hall. It is the funniest film of all time, yet it is unbearably sad and painful, occupied by a melancholy usually reserved for addiction dramas. But one thing is for certain: Woody Allen is a cinematic treasure and Annie Hall is his masterpiece.