Guess Who Directed the Best New Woody Allen Movie? (Hint: It Wasn’t Woody)

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For the past 20 years, nearly every Woody Allen release has prompted critics to declare, “Woody’s BACK!” And for people who enjoy his films, “particularly the early funny ones,” it’s always thrilling to hear. This summer, it also happens to be true. The unique comic vision, the underdog as hero, the awkward love interest, and the hilarious one-liners are back on the big screen…just not in Blue Jasmine. The unique comic voice belongs to Lake Bell, the writer, director and star of In A World.

Bell’s stunning debut had me humming Seems Like Old Times. It sounds awful to admit, but yes, I’ve left Woody for a younger woman. And I’d feel a lot guiltier if he hadn’t been the one who taught me, “The heart wants what the heart wants.”

For a long time, my heart wanted Woody, which is why I was so surprised when I recently added up how many of his movies I have seen (21) to how many I have not seen (20) and realized Blue Jasmine put me at a crossroads. If I skip it then for the first time in forty years, I will have missed as many of his movies as I have seen.

Sleeper was my first and, as a comedy and sci-fi geek, I can’t imagine a more perfect movie for my 13-year-old self. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. A friend recently commented, “Woody created characters that were smarter, more well read, and wittier than me. I wanted to be friends with them. No one else did that.”

I quickly caught up on his earlier movies and eagerly awaited the next. Love and Death turned out to be my favorite, hitting me just as I was reading Dostoyevsky in high school. Woody followed that with Annie Hall and achieved something all neurotic Jewish kids dream of but rarely attain: popularity.

And then things got a little weird. Interiors came out when I was in college and after reading various reviews, I decided to skip my first Woody Allen movie. It wasn’t out of maliciousness; I did it to protect my love. Our relationship wasn’t exclusive. I wanted Woody to have his freedom, to be able to experiment. I just didn’t feel the need to sit and watch.

Also — full disclosure — I’d strayed a bit myself. I started seeing Albert Brooks movies on the side and they were touching me in ways that Woody never did. Real Life actually changed my life. And I don’t think there’s a better instruction manual for seizing the day than Defending Your Life.

Still, Woody came roaring back with Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, and Purple Rose of Cairo and by the end of the decade, my 80’s tally stood at: 8 movies seen, 2 missed — an astonishing batting average and a miraculous number of at bats. Remarkably, Woody’s output has continued at this pace.

The 90’s were rough. In ‘92, Woody was caught having a sexual relationship with his son’s mother’s adopted daughter. Woody was 56; Soon-Yi was 21. I continued going to his movies, but found them — and frankly, him — harder to enjoy.

Mighty Aphrodite became a turning point, kicking off a pattern that persists to this day. A Woody movie would open, reviews would be positive, but I wouldn’t rush to see it. I’d wait for friends to inform me, “It’s great” and “totally worth seeing.” If I heard enough chatter, I’d go. Still, more often than not, I’d find myself wondering what my friends had enjoyed about it. To be fair, I thought the problem was me. Remember the second lobster scene in Annie Hall where Alvy is trying to re-create the magic he had with Annie, but the new date is not playing along and finally admits, “I don’t understand. Are you joking or what?” I knew Woody was working hard to entertain me, but we were just not connecting.

So I took a break. For ten years. Looking back, I never even heard of some of the movies I missed. (Anything Else anyone?) Then around 2005, the chatter began again over Match Point — “it’s great,” “totally worth seeing” — and I decided it was time to bump into Woody again on the proverbial NYC street.

I barely recognized him. For one thing, he wasn’t on the screen. Instead, he had cast extremely attractive, big-name stars to deliver lines in his cadence. The quirky funny-looking character actors like Carol Kane and Fred Melamed were gone and both the plot and the jokes felt forced. I had the same reaction to Midnight in Paris. I tried to shift my expectations, but even after all these years, I felt disappointed. I longed for it to be “still the thrill that it was the day I found you.”

A few weeks ago Blue Jasmine came out and, once again, the chatter began. Friends attended the premiere and declared — and I quote — “It’s great. Totally worth seeing.” I hesitated. I needed corroboration. Instead, I saw this tweet from a New York friend: “Blue Jasmine sucked. Why do people say it was great?”

Then last Friday, I was in Boston on a layover from New Hampshire to Los Angeles. It was a gorgeous, end-of-summer evening, so I headed to Kendall Square Cinema to sit inside a dark theater. The line was long which gave me the chance to ponder my choices: 20 Feet from Stardom, Fruitvale Station, In A World, The Way Way Back, and Blue Jasmine. I was standing at my crossroads. To see or not to see?

“Which movie?” asked the woman in the ticket booth. I responded, and for the next ninety minutes, I could not have been happier. I laughed out loud. I rooted for the underdog. I cared about the characters and the story.  The movie completely engrossed and entertained me. And when I left In A World, I realized I’d just seen the best new (old) Woody Allen movie.

In A World is exactly what I’ve been craving all these years: it’s sharp, romantic, challenging, and silly. Like Woody’s early alter-egos, Lake’s “Carol” is driven, impulsive, unconventional, sexy, and hilarious. Plus, she’s surrounded with a steady stream of quirky, smart characters played by quirky, smart actors including Demetri Martin, Tig Notaro, Rob Corddry, and Michaela Watkins. I wanted to be friends with them all.

And it was great to see Fred Melamed playing Bell’s father, Sam. The two have a complicated relationship that’s typical movie fare for fathers and sons, but rarely [if ever] explored for fathers and daughters. In one of my favorite scenes, Sam invites both his daughters to have dinner with him and his 30-year-old girlfriend. It’s tense, funny, and painfully real. “So mom died,” says Carol’s sister. “Do we need to rehash that?” And they’re off…until the uncomfortable end when dad announces, “I could go for some of that nice green tea.”

Bell effortlessly combines high-brow and low-brow humor, dropping West Egg references and, later, making an entrance, shouting, “This is slutty whore!” She keeps it light while delving into important themes like the strain of temptation on marriage. She tackles sexism the same way Woody tackled anti-semitism — head-on.  In the opening scene, Sam casually dashes his daughter’s dreams of scoring a major voice over job, explaining: “The industry does not crave a female sound. I’m not being sexist — that’s just the truth.” Every woman has had a version of this said right to her face and witnessing it on the big screen actually made my heart beat faster. It is a transcendent “Sister Code” moment.

I can’t wait to see Bell’s next movie and I hope, like Woody, she makes lots. In the meantime, I’ll see Blue Jasmine. Why not? I love Cate Blanchett and pretentious literary allusions. Plus, Woody’s contributions to the cinema — and my life — are indisputable. As a director, he’s up there with Billy Wilder and Sidney Lumet. As a performer, he’s up there with Groucho Marx and Bob Hope. As a writer, he’s up there…all by himself. A friend summed it up perfectly, “You don’t compare him to other writers. You compare other writers to him.”

And when you get right down to it, I guess I just don’t want to live… (deep booming female voice) in a world where I’ve seen fewer Woody Allen movies than not.

WOODY ALLEN NOT SEEN (YET)

2013 Blue Jasmine

2012 To Rome with Love

2010 You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

2009 Whatever Works

2007 Cassandra’s Dream

2006 Scoop

2004 Melinda and Melinda

2003 Anything Else

2002 Hollywood Ending

2001The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

2000 Small Time Crooks

1999Sweet and Lowdown

1998 Celebrity

1997 Deconstructing Harry

1996 Everyone Says I Love You

1992 Husbands and Wives

1991 Shadows and Fog

1990  Alice

1988 Another Woman

1987 September

1978 Interiors

WOODY ALLEN MOVIES SEEN

2013 In A World*

2011 Midnight in Paris

2008 Vicky Cristina Barcelona

2005 Match Point

1995 Mighty Aphrodite

1994 Bullets Over Broadway

1993 Manhattan Murder Mystery

1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors

1987 Radio Days

1986 Hannah and Her Sisters

1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo

1984 Broadway Danny Rose

1983 Zelig

1982 A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy

1980 Stardust Memories

1979 Manhattan

1977 Annie Hall

1975 Love and Death

1973 Sleeper

1972 Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask

1971 Bananas

1969 Take the Money and Run

*Written by, directed by and starring Lake Bell

Nell Scovell has written for a number of TV shows, including The Simpsons, Late Night with David Letterman, and, as she’s written about here, The Wilton North Report.