May 18, 2013
Woody Allen wows critics, just don't call him soppy
"Life is noisy and complicated," so goes a line in the new romantic comedy, "Midnight in Paris," in classic, cynical Woody Allen banter.
But this isn't your usual comedy of errors from Allen. Critics are lauding his latest film as "pleasant," a "souffle," and in a compliment which may seem out of character to his longtime fans, "sweet natured."
So is the 75-year-old Allen, who often filled his old scripts with nervy tirades about everything from failed relationships and sex to mid-life crises, getting sentimental in his old age? Hardly, he says.
"No, it happens to be the idea that you get at the time," he told Reuters in an interview this week sitting in a soft chair in his dark, unpretentious Park Ave office filled with boxes, a smiling assistant and no sign of a shrink's couch.
"People think there is a design to it, but there is not. It is a desperate attempt to come up with a viable idea so that you can earn your salary that year," he said in typically droll fashion about his latest film effort.
Allen has always been beloved in Europe. But such gushing from American critics -- whose reviews have made "Midnight in Paris" currently the top-rated movie on critic aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes with 92 percent approval -- is unusual.
Ever the contrarian, Allen dismisses whether it means Americans are finally ready to forgive him for his past misdemeanors, notably the tabloid scandal over his relationship and marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his former long-time partner, Mia Farrow.
"I fell in love with this girl, married her, we have been married for almost 15 years now, we have children. There was no scandal, there was a lot of tawdry press," Allen said.
"It will be a big part of my obituary and it will lend a little color. I will not be thought of simply as an illiterate lawyer, as a bland, nice Jewish boy, who worked hard and didn't get in any trouble. At least there was some trouble, some juicy scandal in my life," he joked.
Europeans have always been more forgiving of his personal life and weaker movies. But he also discounts any talk of a career resurgence due to using Europe successfully as his muse in recent years with such hits as "Match Point," set in London and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" set in Spain.
"Meaningless, there is no revival," he said with a small smile.
Meanwhile, in his first real homage to the City of Light, "Midnight in Paris" opens with shots so cliched they could be taken by an American tourist, which, he says, is the point, with the searching protagonist, played by Owen Wilson, as the unlikely embodiment of Allen.
Wilson plays a successful Hollywood screenwriter, who while struggling to finish his first novel and searching for life's answers is transported to the 1920s and meets such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The film grapples with the question of nostalgia, leaving Allen to conclude that his eternally pessimistic, or realistic, self, would have been the same in any era.
"I would have been unhappy at any time," he said. "If you are an unhappy person for any reason, which is practically everybody, then a switch in geography or a switch in time is not going to do it for you."
Allen is so unsentimental that he never watches his films once they are finished and derides ceremonies honoring his past films as "living in the past in the gloomiest way."
"I have no pictures in my house of myself in the past, I don't save my clips, I don't save anything," he said.
Nor is he longing for his old stand-up jokes, which some call his best, saying if he is forced to watch old clips of appearances on shows like Ed Sullivan, he thinks, "How God awful I was, how terrible."
He doesn't have a favorite joke: "I have many that I hate. But no favorites."
Allen, who still writes on an old typewriter, sees some advantages to being a technophobe -- he is unlikely to get into the sort of modern day troubles which has made others tabloid fodder.
"I have never sexted anybody. I can't get that far. I cant even text. So I am not up to sext," he joked.
The man who once quipped that he was thrown out of university after cheating in a metaphysics exam for looking into the soul of the student next to him is still dwelling on one of his favorite comedic topics, mortality, but doesn't care about his legacy.
"I am not a big legacy person. When I die, I don't really care if I am remembered for two seconds by anybody; of course my daughters and my wife will remember me and I want them to remember me in a fond way."
And his current thoughts on mortality: "It has no meaning. I want to say you are unconscious, but you are not unconscious, you are nonexistent. Which is even worse than unconscious."
And yet, Allen says, it is really his inability to block out his fear of dying which allows bravery in his filmmaking and propels his prolific work rate of more than 40 feature films for the past 45 years.
"You can distract yourself (from death) with sports, with sex, with stamp collecting, any obsession at all...it is all so trivial," he said. "In my case, it is work, I distract myself by working a lot, practicing the clarinet and stuff that has no real meaning at all, but keeps me busy.