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Allen’s best charms with wit

Observer Scene | Friday, February 24, 2006

“Annie Hall” is probably writer-director Woody Allen’s best film and – considering the overall quality of the prolific comedian ‘s output – that says a lot.

As funny and insightful as anything committed to celluloid, the film explores the differences between sexes and the trials and tribulations of a relationship. “Annie Hall” was Allen’s biggest critical success and one of his biggest commercial successes, catapulting the comedian to stardom.

Though he may have made subsequent films almost as good as “Annie Hall,” he would never again make a film as archetypal and as reflective of its era. Like many great pictures, “Annie Hall” stands both firmly within its time and yet still manages to somehow transcend those same origins.

The small, low-budget film won a boatload of awards, including the New York Film Critics Circle Award and the 1977 Best Picture Academy Award, beating out another small, low-budget film called “Star Wars.” It will be screened this weekend in the Browning Cinema of the Center for the Performing Arts (DPAC) as part of the Spring Arts Fest.

“Annie Hall” follows Alvy Singer (Allen), a comedian who becomes involved in a relationship with the folk singer Annie Hall (played a wonderfully effervescent Diane Keaton, who won an Oscar for her role in the film). It examines their relationship with all the uncertainty, anxiety and problems that come with it.

Along the way, both Singer and Hall work on their careers, with Hall finally getting a big break with manager Tony Lacey (singer-songwriter Paul Simon). Unable to put up with Alvy’s neuroses, Annie eventually leaves him for Tony, which forces Tony to reexamine some aspects of his life – even as he pursues her to California.

The film is funny because it’s so bitingly insightful and true. Though Allen basically plays himself (as he often does), his witty script and the surprisingly filmic direction – for which Allen also won the Oscar – keep the film as fresh today as it was three decades ago. The deterioration and ultimate demise of Singer and Hall’s relationship is neither mawkish nor overly sentimental. Most of this is due to the absolutely brilliant script, which is as witty as the Marx Bros. and as clever as a Wilder comedy.

“Annie Hall” is filled with classic and enduring moments – in particular, a scene in which Hall and Singer stumble through their first meeting (which contrasts what the characters say with what they actually think) and a scene in which Annie’s spirit leaves her body and talks to Alvy during sex. The film is filled with funny touches throughout its relatively brief 93 minutes.

In every way, “Annie Hall” is a superior film – its acting, directing and writing aspects are all impressive. Allen, himself a great cinephile, takes advantage of the medium, using subtle (and some not-so-subtle) cinematic tricks to weave his story. Voice-over narration, direct addresses and odd cuts keep the film from feeling too “stagy” and numerous cinematic references – particularly, a great scene involving a snobbish critic and the films of Federico Fellini – are scattered throughout.

Allen, whose latest film “Match Point” opened last year to critical acclaim and a Best Original Screenplay nod, is still an active writer and director. “Annie Hall” was his first real masterpiece, though he would follow it up with several other classic films, including 1979’s “Manhattan,” 1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” and 1989’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Yet “Annie Hall” remains Allen’s finest film and will likely continue to hold that position. Its insights are bold and funny, but ring out with the kind of truth that makes it universal and enduring.