Weekend Film Recommendation: Annie Hall

Over 35 years on, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall retains its enormous charm and wit

MAIN_SHOT_SAVEGiven how many weak movies make a lot of money and garner a pile of laurels, it is particularly satisfying when justice is done and a magnificent film is a hit both with audiences and critics. So it was with this week’s film recommendation: 1977’s Best Picture Oscar winner Annie Hall.

The plot is straightforward. A neurotic Jewish comedian from Brooklyn who is a lot like Woody Allen falls in love with a kooky, lovely, endearing Wisconsin girl who is a lot like Diane Keaton. He educates her about his hang-ups, psychoanalysis, death, and ethnic baggage. She educates him about how to lighten up and enjoy life. But it doesn’t last. And then it is on again. And then it is off again. And along the way the audience laughs very hard many, many times. As in Shakespeare plays, there isn’t much new here story-wise, but the execution is an inspiration.

Director/Star Woody Allen was at the time known as a sharp stand-up comedian and a maker of funny, lightweight movies (e.g., Take the Money and Run). No one but Woody knew that he also had the ability to make extremely personal, affecting films with strong dramatic moments combined with his trademark hilarity. This movie launched a new phase of his career which has produced many artistic triumphs.

And as for Keaton, I once quoted here former Stanford University President Gerhard Casper saying that “falling in love with Audrey Hepburn was an essential, civilizing experience for all human beings”. For a subsequent generation, the same could have been said of Diane Keaton. Men wanted to take care of her and women wanted to dress like her and a have a cool New York apartment like her. Allen puts incredible faith in Keaton, letting the camera roll and roll as she is alone on screen in several key scenes, and she delivers every time.

I can’t close without posting one of the most famous bits from the film (it ruins nothing of the story), which highlights Allen’s endearingly hostile wit, his chronic and effective breaking of the fourth wall, and his on screen chemistry with his amazing co-star.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

32 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Annie Hall”

  1. I remember Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel discussing the Bowery Boys. One of them (Ebert, I think) loved them, and the other one just didn’t get them at all, because he wasn’t born at the right time so that he saw all those shorts growing up.

    That’s the way I view a lot of Woody Allen’s stuff, “Annie Hall” included. It’s obviously intended to say a lot of profound things about life, it’s supposed to be like a lot of people you might know if you live in certain portions of New York City, etc. But I just. Don’t. Get. Most. of. It. Of Allen’s stuff, I think “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex” is a lot funnier, and “Vicky Christina Barcelona” is pretty good only because Penelope Cruz sweeps in halfway through and steals the picture. But having watched a lot of Allen’s films, he sure does recycle his jokes and characters over and over again!

    I don’t expect 60-something New York Jews to love Steve Martin’s “LA Story” as much as I do either, of course. We are products of our time and place. But the best comedy, it seems to me, is a lot more universal. I’d rather watch any of the “American Pie” films or “There’s Something About Mary” rather than just about anything made by Woody Allen. I’d also rather watch “Duck Soup” or “Airplane!”. To me, Woody Allen just isn’t that funny.

    1. I take it you didn’t fall in love with the leading lady, either (which is what the movie is really about, see Hepburn, A., above).

      1. Leaving aside my crush on Diane Keaton, I’m hard-pressed to think of anything I’ve got in common with Woody Allen, but gosh he’s sure done a lot of great stuff. For my money, the LA of Annie Hall was a lot funnier than Steve Martin’s.

        1. “You don’t get old” all by itself was funnier than LA Story.

          Dianne Keaton is in the Movie Goddess Pantheon (it’s a really big pantheon).

    2. My own favorite Allen movie is Play It Again, Sam, also co-starring Diane Keaton. I thought it a lot funnier than Annie Hall, because it was much less autobiographical.

    3. I have to confess that Annie Hall has never been one of my favorite Woody films. I saw it in the theatre when it came out, and I liked it, but subsequent viewings have never really paid off for me. There are some funny bits in the movie, including the bit with McLuhan, but they’re less funny the second time through. I guess I just couldn’t warm up to either of the principal characters, which is essential for a romcom.

      I keep watching it every few years to see if I missed something, because everybody says it’s so good, but I have to confess it just doesn’t do much for me. It’s not bad, it’s fairly entertaining, but it just seems to be missing something. For me, anyway. Just my own personal taste.

      What Woodys do I like better? Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Mighty Aphrodite, Interiors, Sleeper, and Take the Money and Run leap to mind.

    4. I’ve never been able to warm to any of the movies where Woody Allen is exposing all of his neuroses and insecurities. I don’t find that character sympathetic or interesting. He has made two movies I love dearly, but both are in a completely different vein. He isn’t even in the cast of one of them, The Purple Rose of Cairo. And in the other, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, while he plays a nebbish, he’s actually appealing.

      1. J. Michael Neal wrote “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, while he plays a nebbish, he’s actually appealing”

        ..you might like Broadway Danny Rose then. I loved Purple Rose of Cairo too.

    5. Seems I’m not alone in my antipithy towards Woody Allen filims. Here’s my list of thumbs up for Woody:
      The Purple Rose of Cairo
      Crimes and Misdemeanors
      Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But…
      Bullets Over Broadway
      Mostly all the stuff the critics have panned. Only “Crimes…” was about the typical Woody Manhattan neurotics stuff and the murder kind of kicked that one into another gear.
      Hannah and Her Sisters holds the distinction of being one of two movies I have walked out of a theater in the middle of. The other one was Rambo. Choice company.
      I think what I hate most about most Woody movies is the obvious adlibbed dialogue technique. I know it is supposed to be spontainious but mostly it is boring to watch good actors scrambling to cover their butts instead of doing what they are good at, acting.

      1. “I think what I hate most about most Woody movies is the obvious adlibbed dialogue technique. I know it is supposed to be spontainious but mostly it is boring to watch good actors scrambling to cover their butts instead of doing what they are good at, acting.”

        I think I know what you mean by this. Personally, it has never bothered me, but I could see how it might bother others.

  2. I do think the Marshall McLuhan scene is the single funniest thing Woody Allen has ever done. Number 2 is the “dead shark” line (if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m referring to. If not, you’ll just have to see it to find out.)

  3. Great movie!

    I thought the “Dissentary” (Dysentery?) line was pretty good, but at the time I was regularly attending “New Yorkite” meetings at which Irving Howe was a regular speaker. Guess you had to be there…

    What about “Love and Death”?

  4. Woody Allen is a specific moment in the life of American Jewry (that what we Jews say, Jewry): the passage from membership in an insular and disliked ethnic group to membership in the mainstream community. His humor stems from his desire for acceptance and his fear of rejection, not by other Jews (who barely register except as relics of his past), or by other minorities (generally absent), but by mainstream whites. His constant anxiety is the fear of rejection felt by someone who knows he’s where he doesn’t belong. The sexual relationships in particular are Allen’s repeated metaphor for the desire to leave the ethnic Jewish community and melt into mainstream “American” (read white) society.

    I don’t say this to belittle him. The integration of an ethnic group into wider society is a perfectly fine subject for art, and Allen met the American Jewish community’s strong hunger for a self-aware presentation of its own emotional state in film, much as Phillip Roth did in fiction.

    I do say it to emphasize that Allen’s art is profoundly conservative. He’s got nothing against the total dominance of rich white people in American life; he just wants to be part of the club. When Manhattan came out, the standard observation was that Allen had made a movie about New York with no black people in it.

    Allen’s moment is pretty much over. Nowadays, Jews are acceptably “white” almost everywhere, and Jews can be Jews without sweating it. Allen has stopped making “Woody Allen” movies – he makes pretty fairy tales now – because “Woody Allen” movies aren’t needed any more.

    1. That’s one aspect of his movies, perhaps especially those from the late 80’s/early 90’s.
      Though it’s also an oversimplification – the Woody character in Crimes and Misdemeanors
      is utterly contemptuous of his rich successful WASP brother-in-law, played by Alan Alda,
      to the point that he makes a documentary that crosscuts between Alda and a braying donkey.
      So yeah, he wants to be accepted by the WASP elite, but at the same time he knows they’re
      such a bunch of idiots that he shouldn’t envy them (but he still does).

      But there are plenty of other more universal themes in his work – death, sex, right and wrong,
      reality and illusion, the relationship between art and real life – with a wider resonance.
      I doubt that describing him as “profoundly conservative” is helpful – his main concerns
      don’t overlap much with conventional political issues, and are more to do with the personal
      issues – how should we live, and love, and work ? – than with institutions or policies.

  5. Agreed that Love and Death is (even) funnier than Annie Hall. But the Thanksgiving Dinner scene in Annie Hall is hard to top.

    The really astounding thing about both films is that Diane Keaton does Woody Allen-style monologue comedy (he was among the great stand-up comics before he started making movies) much better than Allen does, and he just lets the camera watch her doing it. It must have been either tremendous directorial integrity or true love.

    1. I don’t know much about Allen’s directing technique, but it’s noteworthy that extremely
      talented actors want to work with him, and often give exceptional performances.

  6. I think Woody Allen is a very talented filmmaker, but I find his obsession with himself pretty hard to swallow. He’s just not that interesting as a person. I think his best movies generally have been the ones where he’s kept himself out of the movie as much as possible. “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” which were previously mentioned are among those. I was surprised but I really enjoyed his recent “Paris After Midnight.” I remember “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” as being very funny but I haven’t seen it in many years and I might not think that now. “Annie Hall” is probably the purest “Woody Allen” film, and it is good. But I remember loving “Manhattan” too when it came out. A few years ago, however, I caught it on TCM and nearly hit the TV. Talk about self-aggrandizing!

    1. As I mentioned below, “Manhattan” was one I loved when I first saw it but now find it unwatchable due to what the film foreshadowed in Allen’s life.

    2. I’m not at all all sure that it’s an “obsession with himself” – the “Woody Allen” character in his
      movies is not necessarily much like the real Woody Allen. Maybe both are obsessed with sex and death,
      but hey, aren’t we all ? And the real Woody Allen’s response to that is to work like a demon
      writing and directing a new movie just about every year, not to fall into a neurotic funk.

      Anyhow, I loved his movies in the 1980s and early 90s – Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days, Selig etc,
      really didn’t like the ones from about 1995-2010, but I thought Paris in Midnight was good,
      if slight. My favorite – and I think the movie which best balances his comedy and tragedy –
      is Crimes and Misdemeanors. The murder sequence – with no dialogue, just Schubert’s
      “Death and the Maiden” quartet, is a memorable piece of filmmaking.

      1. Relevant article here:


        “What I mean is that the public persona we’ve come to know as the “Woody Allen character” is just that — a character. The three N’s so often used to describe the public Allen are nebbishy, nervous and neurotic. But the contrast between the Woody character and the “real” Allen is never more in focus than when he’s on the set, directing.”

  7. The clip is titled “Woody Allen Meets Marshall McLuhan”. Um, Woody did not meet him, he already had Marshall stashed in the wings. His line was “I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here”

    This scene has given rise to an ongoing meme – the “McLuhan Moment”, that moment when somebody showing their ignorance of some subject is confronted by the famous author/authority of that subject. Sometime a confrontation, sometimes the ignorant really did want enlightenment, but always a moment of great hilarity for those who witness it.

    Annie Hall also gave us “but I need the eggs”. Well, gave me anyway.

  8. Late to the party, but I love “Annie Hall” quite a bit and still watch it semi-regularly. I don’t have much of anything in common with Allen either except maybe his sense of humor. It’s hard not to like a lines like “Yeah, I’m a bigot, but for the Left” and “Don’t you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.” Also, the scenes when Woody and Diane Keaton first meet, from the tennis to the Keaton’s driving to the drink on the terrace capture those awkward early moments of a relationship perfectly and with great humor. But for all of that, it’s a pretty mature take on relationships.

    I guess I’d call “AH” my favorite, but I’ve enjoyed many others, everything from “Bananas” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” to “Manhattan Murder Mystery” and much of his other filmography.

    On the other hand, the film that initially attracted me to Allen, “Manhattan,” is all but unwatchable for me now. I know the chronology isn’t right, but if ever there was an “art-imitates-life” moment, “Manhattan” is it.

    1. But if I had to boil the humor down to a specific bit:

      Pam: “Did you catch the Dylan concert?”
      Alvi: *coughs to suppress laughter* “No, I couldn’t make it. My, uh, raccoon had hepatitis.”
      Pam: “You have a raccoon?”
      Alvi: “A few.”

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