For roughly a quarter century—from Take the Money and Run in 1969 to, say, Bullets Over Broadway in 1994—Woody Allen was among America’s most fascinating and iconic filmmakers. His early comedies were a revelation; his more mature works (in particular Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Hannah and Her Sisters) were among the best films of the period. Frequently casting himself in central roles, he mined a vein of humor that was emphatically Jewish yet accessible to a wide audience. And if his occasional homages to great European directors such as Bergman (Interiors and Another Woman) and Fellini (Stardust Memories and Alice) weren’t entirely successful, they nonetheless deepened the intellectual reputation of an oeuvre also known for its allusions to art, literature, and philosophy. Alone among major directors, he seemed to be speaking almost intimately to his audience, playing repeated variations on the same character, a man who was a recognizable variation on Allen himself.
Though Allen, now 81, has maintained his frenetic pace of one feature film a year since 1982, his more recent output has been generally, yet gently, judged a disappointment. His best films of the past 20 years—Match Point, Blue Jasmine—are solid but overrated, perhaps because so many of us dream of a return to his early form. (A. O. Scott of The New York Times, who accurately described Match Point as Allen’s “most satisfying film in more than a decade,” then couldn’t resist hyperbole: “a Champagne cocktail laced with strychnine.”) The rest run the gamut from middling—Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris—to genuinely bad: Scoop, Whatever Works, To Rome With Love. While the former have a habit of garnering plaudits anyway (Midnight in Paris won an Oscar for best original screenplay), the latter are often politely ignored in discussions of the overall quality of his work.