Forty years ago, Take the Money and Run, a comedy by a then little-known Brooklyn-born writer-director and stand-up comic was released in the US.
The caper about an incompetent, petty criminal named Virgil Starkwell, played by Allen, got mostly positive reviews, although Roger Ebert declared it “has some very funny moments, and you'll laugh a lot, but in the last analysis it isn't a very funny movie. It isn't really a movie at all.”
Conversely, the New York Times' Vincent Canby hailed the film as the “cinematic equivalent to one of Allen's best nightclub monologues, a kind of cowardly epic peopled with shy FBI agents, cons who are wanted for dancing with mailmen, over-analysing parents and one lady blackmailer who has the soul of a Jewish mother—she likes to feed her victim good, hot meals.”
No one, probably least of all Allen, could have predicted that this little movie would mark the beginning of a successful although chequered career which has spawned 40 films in 40 years.
In interviews to promote his latest effort, Whatever Works, the 73-year-old filmmaker seemed to be in no mood to celebrate that milestone or to reflect on his accomplishments. In doleful terms which the misanthropic anti-hero of his new film might use, Allen says filmmaking “distracts me from the uncertainty of life, the inevitability of aging and death and death of loved ones; mass killings and starvation, from holocausts — not just man-made carnage, but the existential position you're in."
Allen is a paradox. For a director with a devoted, almost fanatical following, regarded by some as a comic genius, his movies have rarely drawn sizable, mainstream audiences. In recent years, his best performers were Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which grossed a modest $23 million in the US and a sturdy $73 million in the rest of the world, and Match Point, which took in $23 million at home and $62 million internationally.
But Cassandra's Dream, Scoop, Melinda and Melinda, Anything Else and Hollywood Ending all bombed. For his biggest successes in dollar terms we have to go back decades to 1979's Manhattan and 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters, which both raked in $40 million in the US (worth much more in today's dollars, of course).
The Numbers website estimates that the 37 films Woody has directed since 1972's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask have earned a total of $464 million in the US, for an average of $12.5 million per picture: hardly the hallmark of a hit-making director.
Allen could point to his Academy Awards' pedigree as a more meaningful validation of his craft. He's been nominated a record 14 times for best original screenplay, six times for direction and once for best actor (for Annie Hall). He's won three Oscars, for directing and writing Annie Hall and the screenplay for Hannah and Her Sisters.
Yet he seems dismissive of gongs. When Sleeper was overlooked by the Academy in 1974, he mused, “The whole concept of awards is silly. I cannot abide by the judgment of other people, because if you accept it when they say you deserve an award, then you have to accept it when they say you don't.''
Fast forward to the 2002 ceremony, where he got a standing ovation which prompted this memorable quip: “Thank you very much. That makes up for the strip search.''
He's keen to debunk his image as a mousy intellectual type who hides behind black-rimmed glasses. At college he played baseball and won track medals. "I'm the guy you see in his T-shirt with a beer watching the baseball game at night at home," he says. "I was never a loner or a loser — always the first one picked for the team."
Whatever Works, which stars Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David as Boris Yellnikoff, an atheistic, egotistical, misanthropic physics professor whose life changes when he meets a ditzy Southern girl, continues the same obsessions which have preoccupied Allen through his career and life.
“I've been in psychoanalysis, I've been successful, I've had ups, I've had downs,” he told the Village Voice. “I've had some hit movies, movies that failed. But with everything that's happened to me, all of my experiences, I've never been able to solve the real problems of life that have plagued every playwright since Euripides and Aristophanes. No progress has been made on the existential themes and the subject of interpersonal relations, which are still brutal and painful and fragile and very hard to make work, and which cause everybody an enormous amount of suffering and grief. Why are we here? What is the point of it all?”
Allen originally wrote the role of Yellnikoff for Zero Mostel, who died in 1977. He never had himself in mind for the character, explaining, “I thought of it as a part for a fat man. I thought of him as a big, aggressive physicist, a Russian chess genius who had no time for 'microbes' and 'earthworms.' And I can't do that. My source of comedy is more victim -- I find myself frightened when I hear the noise in the other room.”
The film suggests that Boris is redeemed, to an extent, by his encounter with the young woman played by Evan Rachel Wood, who's about 40 years his junior. Is there a parallel, the Village Voice asked, with Allen's avowed happiness with his wife Soon-Yi? Woody seemed to agree, sort of: “In fiction, that was even a theme as far back as Manhattan, that in this presumably more innocent, younger person -- before they get spoiled by the world -- that one can find a certain happiness. Mine was very good luck, personally, that way, but that has always been an idea of mine going back quite far.”