‘Crisis in Six Scenes’

Woody Allen makes a leap into episodic TV – with mixed results.

A pair of like minded souls reflect on the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards
A pair of like minded souls reflect on the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards

It was upon seeing Woody Allen’s 2015 misfire Irrational Man that it truly dawned on me how lazy he has become as a writer. Perhaps living inside the kind of fame bubble which he successfully lampooned in Stardust Memories , he is so far removed from criticism (he doesn’t read his own press) or collaboration (his screenplays have all – bar three or so – been self-penned on his own) is partially to blame. Or the fact that he has produced one film per year since the early 1970s.

Or maybe it’s got a lot to do with his origins as a sketch comedy writer. He’s great at coming up with comic conceits, or mining other well-trodden sources for his inspiration of late (Blue Jasmine is A Streetcar Named Desire with a twist; Magic in the Moonlight is one of several of his takes on Pygmalion). Like George Lucas, he’s not much of a writer any longer, and his choices as a director err to the uninspired – so he is, in many respects, a great ideas man. He’s a producer, but unlike Lucas, he doesn’t hire writers and directors to do the hard yards for him, and this is where things begin to unravel.

The other dead giveaway was revealed in the 2012 piece, Woody Allen: A Documentary. In it, director Robert B. Weide is given access to Allen’s process, which includes sorting through some random ideas he writes on scrap paper – all of which would make for amusing comedy set-pieces, or magical conceits. Midnight in Paris – on the surface – is about a magical car that shows up at the stroke of midnight and takes the hero backwards in time; it is, underneath that, a parable for embracing what you have and not living in the past. All well and good.

It’s ludicrous to consider Crisis in Six Scenes as anything but a film in six broken chapters; there’s nothing about it which suggests episodic television in terms of its tone, execution or structure. It is, purely and simply, a two-hour Woody Allen comedy cut into six 22-minute segments. Even its title is misleading – there aren’t six scenes; there are innumerable more. It’s like any number of his older works, except the scenes are padded out to extraordinarily prolonged lengths. The token five minute ‘diner’ scene runs twice as long, and for the lack of a script editor all-but screams that he’s filling for time.

And as a film, like so many of his recent works, it’s just not very good. The problems lie in the writing (also, the acting – poor Elaine May, she tries but has nothing to work with; Allen himself seems to be improvising his own lines, which all read like first drafts; Miley Cyrus has nowhere near the acting chops to pull of her ‘revolutionary’ character with any kind of conviction).

One trap he falls into here is the same kind of trap his lack of research in his writing has befallen previously: no research, which begets a lack of insight. The comic conceit has the Yentas’ book club being indoctrinated into radical literature – quotations of Chairman Mao, etc. But they become radicalised by it, without their dialogue showing that neither the characters, nor Allen himself, have any real understanding of the content. Take a look back at Blue Jasmine: in it, Alec Baldwin’s character is supposed to be a high-flying financial wiz; yet in a pair of scenes where he is supposedly showing his financial nous, there is nothing in the dialogue that rings true. It’s as if Allen’s script directed his actors to speak vaguely about money things (here).

Elaine May’s therapist has, within her sessions, moments of comedic genius – such as the couple who aren’t having sex because of the husband’s dalliances with sex workers, so on the therapist’s advice, he starts paying his wife for sex… until she starts overcharging him. Very funny. But that’s pretty much it.

And in one of the more galling sequences, Allen is openly milking the ‘state room’ scene from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. Which is fine, as an homage… but at one point Allen’s character name-checks the Marx Brothers, essentially breaking the fourth wall, and illustrating that he’s either openly winking at the audience, or too senile to know that he’s blatantly naming his sources.

There’s hints of greatness throughout it – ideas that if properly developed through collaborative writing efforts and discipline, workshopping (like one might in a TV writers room), could have gone from conceptually amusing to actually good. But at the end of the day, it’s just another entry into his list of screen credits. It’s his 48th work in as many years (his second this year after Café Society) with his 49th in production for a 2017 release; it’s come to the point where you can do nothing more than give the man points for prolificacy… and hope that the next one is good.

Crisis in Six Scenes is streaming on Amazon Prime.

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