Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Don't Drink The Water (1994)


Then With the internet came two things. Access to a whole new world of information, and in the years before I bought a dvd player, films that had only been released on NTSC tapes in America. No region coding but slightly inferior picture and a three month wait because of surface mail. I ordered three films: Another Time, Another Place, a Lana Turner vehicle featuring an early appearance from Sean Connery filmed in Polperro where my parents enjoyed their honeymoon; Beautiful, a Minnie Driver vehicle about beauty pageants because of my Minnie Driver fixation and Don’t Drink The Water because I thought I was buying the 60s version.

Now Don’t Drink The Water, or Blossom grows up. I was a huge fan of Blossom and never missed an episode of its five year potter through Channel 4’s early evening schedule. It was about teenagers who were roughly my age and though it did tend to be very “issue” led (one issue being “Shall we go to the Oasis concert?”) the scripts were often much sharper than they had any right to be. Though shot during that sitcom’s reign of terror, it’s quite surprising to see Mayim “Blossom” Bialik in a more mature role with bosoms and looking sexy in a pink dress. She acquits herself well, coming across like a young Sarah Jessica Parker and certainly makes sense in a couple with Michael J Fox, even if he’s a whole sitcom generation (Family Ties in his case) ahead of her.

Produced for HBO in the years before it became HB-fucking-O thanks to The Sopranos and The Wire, Don’t Drink The Water might not be a great film but for various reasons it is still interesting. As we know, this is the second screen version of the play, the first being that 1969 version with Jackie Gleason which I hated over six weeks ago. I’ve scoured the web looking for production details as to why Woody decided to go back to the well, though as I speculated then, conceivably it’s because he was never happy with the way Howard Morris butchered his original script and was keen to set the record straight or HBO went to him with a budget and like his acting roles he was keen to, ahem, take the money and run. Whatever the reason, it’s certainly a better piece of work than the earlier unfunny one.

Working from the same theatre script, the story about a family stranded in a foreign military dictatorship and the dialogue are roughly the same. But in keeping the film more faithful to the original work, the balance of narrative power shifts to Fox’s ambassador’s son, given the keys to the embassy kingdom by his father at the beginning of the film in scenes reminiscent of the opening of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The rest of the film takes place largely within the embassy, so when the family arrive, the business of them being chased from airport appears in reported speech and their reason for becoming trapped – the army suspecting that they’re spies – almost thrown away in the chaos. The story then roughly proceeds in the same way, though without the sex comedy aspects of the 60s film, Fox and Bialik’s relationship developing more gradually and amiably.

As Entertainment Weekly noticed at the time, Woody makes no concessions for the contemporary audience, filming the text largely as is employing a voiceover and Zelig-style newsreel to explain the political environment. Carlo Di Palma also shoots it using the same handheld improvisational style he was playing about with in Husbands and Wives and Manhattan Murder Mystery, scenes often rushing out in one shot which means that the actors are allowed to perform the piece rather like a stage production. That causes Don’t Drink The Water to have an added layer of poignancy because we’re seeing the older version of the director shooting material created by his younger version, with Fox playing the character he must have had in mind for himself. That he is so respectful suggests that like any artist he understands the development of his craft and his abilities but knows that for all of his embarrassment about his accomplishments in some interviews, you can't really trash what’s gone before because it explains where you are now.

In reality, that is part of the problem I had with the film. Clearly parts of this script are very funny (explaining why theatrical production are still very regular, judging by the number that have cropped up on YouTube) but in film terms it’s crying out for the slapdash approach from the 60s. Some of the moments of chaos look silly without edits and the more naturalist/improvisational approach to the script, especially by Fox, means that some of the one-liners are stepped on or mumbled at the end of sentences. Maybe, like Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway, Woody told him to simply act rather than do an interpretation, but the part needs a clown in places and Fox is too straight-suited here for that and sometimes his more meaningful rendition of a put upon son is at odds with, Dom DeLuise’s priest magician which is largely an exercise in shameless mugging.

There are also some very funny lines (“We’re suing them for low tolerance to tainted meat…” – you had to be there) and sequences even if now they’re not exactly politically correct, especially the material about the Hollanders meeting a visiting Sheik and his several wives (“I count fourteen wives. How do you ever get into the bathroom?”). It’s quite refreshing to see a brief return of the early slapstick version of actor Woody and as in Oedipus Wrecks he has a great rapport with Julie Kavner as his wife, already five years into her stint as Marge Simpson. And despite being a made-for-television piece it still retains that Woody Allen feel; he used the same production staff that worked on his previous few pictures (and beyond – Juliet Taylor cast this too) and the familiar font on black heralds and closes. If only I knew how the production came about. Perhaps, it's nicer not to know and just enjoy the anomaly.

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