Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: New York Stories: Oedipus Wrecks (1989)

Then Fittingly for a film with three different strands, I can think of three distinct times I originally watched New York Stories. At Tris’s flat, at university and during Channel 4’s New York at Christmas season. I can’t remember which was the first. The first section, Life Lessons is in my top three favourite Scorsese films (the others being The Last Temptation of Christ and The Aviator – I’m weird) and I’ve previously waxed lyrical about film editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s contribution here. Coppola’s Life Without Zoe has also been mentioned in relation to the Eloise animations.

Now The New York Stories project was an idea that turned up in a discussion between producer Robert Greenhut and Woody, who was looking for something to cleanse his mental pallet on the back of working so intensively on September and Another Woman. Originally the three directors were to be Allen, Scorsese and Spielberg, but Steven was busy and so Coppolla plugged the gap. True to form, up until the publication of his interview with Bjorkman he hadn’t seen the film, which is a shame because he was missing Nick Nolte’s best performance, Rosanna Arquette looking dazzling (and oddly like a taller Sarah Michelle Gellar) and a rather wonderful evocation of the coping mechanisms of lonely rich kids.

Woody’s end of the film was a product of an idle daydream. He was listening to a Sydney Bechet jazz record one day and wistfully looking towards the sky and wondered about how cool it would be if the soprano saxophonist appeared and filled the city with live music. Then he thought that funnier idea would if it was his mother and all she did all day was nag. Then he thought of the magic show, of her disappearing from an illusionist’s grasp only to have her giant eyes regarding her son’s every move. The stroke of genius in terms of this is portrayed in the film, is that the city is beguiled by her (and her crime fighting abilities) while Woody’s character Sheldon and his fiancĂ© slowly find their world is falling apart as she turns large parts of the New York community against them.

Oedipus Wrecks is (or was – these tenses are becoming increasingly confusing) his outright funniest film since Annie Hall. Of course to an extent that’s by design – romantic comedies by their nature can’t spend all of their time being just funny – but the laugh quotient in this half hour is higher than some films which deliberately go out of their way to be outrageous bursts of glee. Obviously a lot of that has to do with Mae Questel’s delivery as the archetypical mother whose relationship with Sheldon is not unlike Barbara Lott in the Ronnie Corbett sitcom Sorry! emasculating her son at every turn effectively until he finds a nice goy. But Woody’s also on his best form in years, his timing superb as his eye continually roll with the recognition that his mother is in the process of embarrassing him. Again. The moment in which he realises that Julie Kavner’s “psychic” is the woman for him is one of my favourite Woody Allen moments so far.

To be fair and balanced (eep) Stephen Spignesi in The Woody Allen Companion is less thrilled with Wrecks. He speaks of potential squandered, of scenes being too short for the humour to register, the occult rituals with the funny head dresses not being milked nearly enough. And that Mia basically walks through her role though he acknowledges her beauty. Right, Mia first. Whilst its true that Mia’s role isn’t huge and she doesn’t have that much to do, with such a slender running time in fact all she needs to do is to be straight-laced, non-Jewish, a bit unsympathetic and unacceptable to Sheldon’s mother.

The jokes: Spignesi wrote that criticism in the early nineties and I wonder if it’s a product of a time when film comedy and especially gag based film comedy was slower. True, the Airport films were very fast paced, but often the jokes played out within much longer scenes, whereas the cutting in Wrecks is often very swift and perhaps that’s simply become more acceptable in the world of The Fast Show, Family Guy and Robot Chicken when a scene is barely in play before the joke comes and the viewer is faced with another scenario. Over time we’ve learned to appreciate some jokes, even visual, stop being funny once you’ve laughed at the punchline.

Two final bits of casting trivia. The film was Kirsten Dunst's screen debut playing one of Mia's kids (altogether now -- oh bless!). Larry David also features as a theatre manager:

No comments: