Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Picking Up The Pieces (2000)

Then Picking Up The Pieces is a staple of the cheap dvd boxsets which appear in remainder shops the like The Works featuring Hollywood actors in tv roles from before they were famous, indie films that failed to receive proper distribution or grindhouse style horror. Usually its in a double bill with some early Jim Carrey or a quadruple bill next to the courtroom period drama Darrow with Kevin Spacey. I somehow managed to track down an earlier release ex-rental of the film on its own in Cash Converter on Allerton Road a few years ago.

Now Picking Up The Pieces is a bit of a curates egg and Woody’s participation is just plain weird. It’s not offensively bad, it’s not brilliant, it’s just not particularly inspiring (which probably explains why it received its first showing on cable tv in the US). He plays Tex, a butcher who takes exception to the infidelity of his wife (Sharon yes indeed Stone) and chops her up into pieces, one of which, her hand, goes astray on the road when he heads to New Mexico to bury her.

When said anatomical subsection is found on the road by a blind woman miraculously regains her sight, the local and somewhat morally ambiguous priest played by David err-aha-yeah Schwimmer takes advantage and soon his church is besieged by disabled tourists with lots of money seeking their miracle too. Meanwhile, Keifer Sutherlands Texas cop and former lover of Tex’s wife is on the butcher’s trail as he roles into town searching for the dismembered digits. Which hopefully untangles the mangle of the trailer which also has most of the good jokes.

Director Alfonso Arau’s previous film Like Water For Chocolate was one of my favourite films of the nineties and the first time (and I think only time) I was actively shushed in a cinema as I became very excited with that Romeo & Juliet style tale of star-crossed lovers. That was oddly edited and weirdly paced and tonally all over the place which explains why Pieces shares many of the same problems/opportunites – there are elements of Arau's style or varying styles.

If the Tex material has elements of Chaucer in its comic treatment of a cuckold and spousal homicide, as the village is engulfed with people and the locals making the most of their good fortune I was reminded of the Capraesque Magic Town or an Ealing comedy. It seems to be attempting to say something about faith and how God moves in mysterious ways and the treatment of the miracles firmly puts it into the divine intervention genre.

The essential problem with the film is that can't quite decide whether it's a black comedy, morality tale, religious allegory or western (I suppose). I tend to hate genre labels and like films which flout the rules but without a concrete tether story wise and actually a single point of view character (if we're being really technical) everything just meanders between some nice moments (Maria Grazia Cucinotta dancing in the rain and Sharon Stone's ghost spring to mind) without really engrossing properly.

Like Company Man, I can’t find anything online explaining what Woody Allen is doing in this but he’s certainly one of the highlights and though it’s difficult to tell, seems have been given some latitude to improvise, which means that his dialogue is often funnier than anything happening elsewhere. Plus there’s an unexpected delight to see him working with the likes of Sutherland who doesn’t seem like the kind of figure who’d ever turn up in one of Woody's own films, two acting worlds clashing.

The film was shot in the interesting experimental 2.00:1 or Univisium aspect ratio designed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro to bridge the gap between television and the cinema with their inherent framing problems (and which he’s controversially used to reframe his earlier films like Apocalypse Now) which explains the slightly odd look of the film – it has even less depth of field than typical 35mm. I wonder what he thinks of Avatar, which was released globally in a hundred different versions.

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