Play It Again, Sam
This is the earliest movie in Woody Allen’s career I’ve watched, and while I had heard of it, I honestly did not know what to expect…or that Allen himself did not direct it. (Those duties were given to Herbert Ross, who went on to direct “The Goodbye Girl,” “Footloose” and “Steel Magnolias,” among others.) Based on Allen’s play, Allen evidently did not want to direct an adaptation of his stage work, and wanted to focus on original screen work as a director. That’s a very smart move on Allen’s part, because then he just could focus his attention on his performance, and it’s probably one of his best in his movies.
The story is low-key but high concept, as Woody plays Allan, a film critic and writer who is obsessed with “Casablanca” and Humphrey Bogart. How obsessed is he? Let’s just say that as a movie buff and nerd, I am envious of the decorating taking place in his home. It’s more than just that, though; he actually imagines himself having conversations with Bogart (Jerry Lacy in a wicked impression), which become especially necessary for Allan when his wife (Susan Anspach) leaves him, and he’s trying to date again. He gets some help from a couple he’s good friends with (Dick, played by Tony Robbins, and Linda, played by Diane Keaton), but he mostly bombs out due to his personal neurosis, and his inability to read women. Bogart tells him how he should be to come off as more confident, but he dismisses that advice. As he gets more desperate, he finds himself spending more time with Linda, who is often home alone while Dick is away on business. When their friendship appears to go into a more romantic direction, however, choices must be made that are not unlike those Bogey’s Rick made in “Casablanca,” and naturally, the moment of truth ends up happening on an airport runway.
During one scene alone between Allan and Linda, there’s an uncomfortable piece of dialogue about rape between the two, with Allan saying that it is a secret desire of women to be raped. Back in the ’70s, it was no doubt a more acceptable piece of sexual frankness than it plays 40 years later, where “rape culture” and “no means yes” are topics of serious discussion, and Woody Allen has been embroiled in a very public controversy over whether he did (or didn’t) sexually abuse an adopted daughter he had with his longtime girlfriend, Mia Farrow, when she was 7 years old. Allen and Keaton deliver the dialogue with their predictable comedic pointedness, but it just hits the wrong notes now. That’s about the only thing that can be said against Ross and Allen’s adaptation of Woody’s play, though, which is mature, funny and imaginative with Woody Allen giving a smart, enjoyable performance as his autobiographically-neurotic alter ego, and being matched, beat-for-beat, by Keaton. It’s a note Woody has played the vast majority of his career, but it wasn’t quite to the point of self-parody it has been the past 20 years yet, and it’s very sweet and sincere and fun to watch, just like the film itself.