My Complicated Relationship With ‘Annie Hall’
I know Woody Allen’s 1977 film is a classic, but I just can’t seem to enjoy it
My relationship with Annie Hall got off to a rocky start. Last January, home with a cold on a Sunday morning during winter break, I figured I’d use the opportunity to relax, curl up in bed, and watch the film that I had heard so much about. When I finished, though, I felt worse than when I’d started.
There were parts that I really enjoyed, such Keaton’s performance as Annie, but any enjoyment I had was clouded by Alvy’s portrayal of the neurotic New York Jew, which I found irksome and headache-inducing. I realized that this may have been the point, that the character wasn’t supposed to be entirely likeable, but nevertheless, I couldn’t get past my annoyance. I wrote the movie off as a particular shtick that many might love but that just didn’t appeal to me.
But this past week, as I asked around for recommendations of the next Jewish classic to write about, all anyone could talk about was Annie Hall. I realized that maybe I’d judged the iconic film too quickly, so I gave it another chance, and I’m glad I did.
After a closer look, I was able to better appreciate the elements of the film that made it so unique; I admired the way that it played cleverly off concepts of memory and imagination, the innovative cinematic techniques, and the delicate balance of humor and intensity. And, perhaps most importantly, I began to ease up on Alvy. I was starting to think of him as an eccentric friend or relative whose annoying quirks I was slowly getting used to the more time I spent with him. I even began to see these quirks as endearing at times.
Something was still missing, though. While I found the pompous professor on line for the movies just as insufferable as Alvy did, his analysis comes to mind: “I admire the technique, but it doesn’t hit me on a gut level.” This might be as simple as personal taste. But it might also have a bit to do with the strange combination of relevance and distance that I found in the film. I didn’t grow up in 1970s New York, and many of the political and intellectual references in the film were unfamiliar to me. But I did grow up in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn, just minutes away from the rollercoaster that shook Alvy’s house in Coney Island, and I spent most of my childhood vacations in a Catskills resort similar to the one with which Alvy opens the film. As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, the brand of Jewish humor that characterizes Alvy isn’t foreign to me either.
You’d think that the applicability of these elements of Alvy’s identity to my own life would make the film more enjoyable; instead, there was just enough familiarity to make me a little wary of its stereotyping of the New York Jewish experience. It’s likely that this portrayal of the neurotic Jewish intellectual was more relatable at the film’s release in the 1970s, and even today, many aspects of this depiction ring true. Yet the image introduced in Annie Hall is not a full representation of New York Jewish life. While neuroses and dark, cynical humor were, and still are, undoubtedly a part of the New York Jewish experience, there is also much, much more.
Of course, the success of a movie doesn’t depend on a perfect depiction of reality; fiction can often be more fun. And as much as Annie Hall may have been pulled from true experience, it also created a fictional world of its own, one so powerful that its influence has been felt for decades, all the way to my own generation’s version of the nerdy, nervous Jew, the O.C.’s Seth Cohen. But this image has also become tiresome to many, and I can see why. Alvy’s depiction of the New York Jew is not at all nuanced; it’s all neuroses, all the time.
Seth Cohen, while inhabiting some Alvy-esque traits, balances them out with moments of positivity and selflessness—instead of, say, an obsession with death—making his character relatable in a way that Alvy’s could never be. The character of Alvy is truly distinctive, and this does make him entertaining, but it also makes him very, very irritating.
Still, my second time viewing the film was certainly better than the first. I might not luuurve or loave or luff the film yet (sorry, had to get that in somewhere), and I might not even love it, but at least I can say that I now like it.
Longtime Forward columnist co-founded Moment magazine with Elie Wiesel