Of all the axioms and witticisms attributed to Woody Allen, the most lasting is “80 percent of success is just showing up.” (Depending on the citation, it might also be “90 percent of life,” but you get the idea.) For Woody agnostics, this can be easily twisted into a criticism — no matter his dwindling cultural profile, Allen continues to churn out new product at a prodigious clip, and the industry keeps on rewarding him with Oscar nominations (three this decade) and substantial financial payouts. After all this time, showing up remains Woody Allen’s key to prosperity.
The most recent example involves Amazon, which spent $15 million for Allen’s 47th film, Cafe Society, a flawed but pleasant enough romantic comedy set in 1930s Hollywood that’s bolstered substantially by stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. So far, Cafe Society has grossed $11 million since its July release. (That’s better than nearly two-thirds of Allen’s films, though well below recent hits like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine.)
Amazon reportedly also paid a substantial (though unreported) sum for Crisis in Six Scenes, a six-episode TV series that, again, was seemingly sold primarily on the strength of Allen’s bulletproof artistic reputation.
After slogging through all six episodes, I wonder: Does Amazon have any buyer’s remorse? To be blunt, Crisis in Six Scenes is terrible. The writing is terrible, the direction is terrible, the acting is terrible, it looks terrible, and it will make you feel terrible. Unless you decide to bail after the first episode, at which point sweet relief might sweep over you.
Allen stars as Sidney, (surprise!) a neurotic, cantankerous writer who spends his days managing his many health-related phobias in the midst of privileged, upper middle-class comfort in New York City. His wife, Kay (Elaine May), works as a therapist, even though she (like Allen) is well past retirement age. Staying at their house is Alan (John Magaro), a dweebish NYU student who, in the manner of all young Woody Allen protagonists, is basically Woody’s Mini Me. Alan is engaged to Ellie (Rachel Brosnahan), a beautiful blonde who should be out of Alan’s league but, of course, isn’t. The couple appears to be happy but, of course, isn’t, due mostly to Alan’s hemming and hawing about commitment.
After a middling first episode, a whiff of conflict is introduced in episode two the form of Lenny (an overmatched Miley Cyrus), a family acquaintance turned political radical on the run from the police. Oh, have I mentioned that Crisis in Six Scenes is set in the ’60s? For a period piece, Crisis in Six Scenes feels oddly disconnected from the era it represents. It might as well be set in the present — or, rather, Woody Allen’s “present.”
Aside from occasional pop culture references to bygone actors and jokes about the silliness of left-wing political activism, Crisis in Six Scenes exists in the same twilight zone of all Woody Allen projects, in which the bourgeois preoccupations with classical music and pseudo-intellectualism are frozen in 1965. That Crisis in Six Scenes happens to take place around that time is a convenient coincidence. But Allen otherwise doesn’t demonstrate any real feel for the period, much less an understanding of the counter-culture. (Allen also doesn’t bother to acknowledge the link between the protest movements of the ’60s and the activism of 2016, perhaps because he doesn’t keep up with current events.)
If you know Allen’s work, you can probably guess what happens next: Alan falls for Lenny, Lenny annoys Sidney, Sidney and Kay bicker about Lenny, Alan almost leaves his fiancee for Lenny, Sidney sort of comes around on Lenny, and Sidney’s sourness is redeemed in the end. Less expected is how utterly charmless it all is — Allen and May are towering giants of modern comedy, and yet there’s virtually no warmth and mirth that comes out of their interactions. Instead, the tired jokes and even more exhausted plot points are dispensed perfunctorily, as if simply showing up at this point in Allen’s career makes up for that remaining 20 percent.
Crisis in Six Scenes underscores how much Allen has been bailed out by his actors in the past decade. Along with Eisenberg and Stewart, whose chemistry compensates for Allen’s wan script in Cafe Society, Owen Wilson’s puppy-dog affability went a long way to making Midnight in Paris tolerable, and Cate Blanchett’s powerhouse performance overwhelms the myriad weaknesses of Blue Jasmine. In Crisis in Six Scenes, Allen and May simply don’t have the energy to sell the underwritten material. As for Cyrus, her performance is embarrassingly incoherent, punctuated with awkward line readings and maximum-OMG eye rolls. A famously non-communicative director, Allen apparently left Cyrus to twist in the wind.
Trying and failing at a creative venture is forgivable. I don’t much like Interiors, either, but I never doubted Allen’s commitment to the material. What’s not forgivable is contempt of the audience, and this is what ultimately pushes Crisis in Six Scenes past being merely disappointing to being downright offensive.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter back in May, Allen admitted that a TV show “was much harder to do than I thought. I thought, ‘I’ll sandwich this in between two films and knock it off. What’s the big deal? It’s television.'” Unfortunately, wising up to the work-load of modern TV didn’t make Allen any smarter regarding the artistry of the medium.
For Crisis in Six Scenes, Allen weirdly chose to bookend the series with smug jokes about the worthlessness of TV, a theme in Allen’s work going at least as far back as Annie Hall. In the opening scene, Sidney ponders whether to slum it by launching a TV writing career. Allen’s low opinion of TV is voiced by Sidney’s barber (Max Casella), who dismisses TV as “lowbrow compared to a book.” Allen essentially echoes the joke in the series’ final scene, coming to the conclusion that he’s better off sticking with a “higher” art form like literature (or, for Allen, cinema) that’s worthy of his genius.
With all due respect to Allen, this is ludicrous and speaks to Allen’s gross arrogance. Allen is in no way justified in patronizing the benefactors who paid for this disaster, or the viewers who dare to tolerate the tedium of watching Crisis in Six Scenes. To the contrary, Woody Allen ought to feel grateful that he’s still allowed to have a career at all. The indulgent privilege pervading Crisis in Six Scenes suggests that Allen has perhaps grown a little too accustomed to getting away with murder.
Having grown up in the ’80s and ’90s, I’m part of perhaps the last generation of cinephiles that feels obligated to revere Allen. I’ve seen all of his masterpieces and many of his clunkers. I count at least one of his films (1989’s peerless Crimes and Misdemeanors) among my absolute favorites. And I’ll probably keep on following Allen’s work until he retires or dies. Caring about Woody Allen is too ingrained in my film-loving psyche to ever give up on him completely. But I don’t get the sense that this obligation has carried over to film fans in their teens and 20s. Unlike, say, Martin Scorsese, who continues to make movies like The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street that tap into the zeitgeist, younger viewers don’t seem to care much about Woody Allen’s classic films, much less his latest work.
Contemporary attitudes about Woody Allen’s movies are invariably colored by Dylan Farrow’s assault allegations — many millennial viewers now reject Allen’s work out of hand, with some justification. But the films themselves, when viewed through a modern lens, can seem blinkered, pedantic, and conspicuously caucasian.
Crisis in Six Scenes could’ve been a golden opportunity for Allen to engage with a new audience in a medium that matters as much to young people in the ’10s as cinema meant to sophisticates during Allen’s heyday in the ’70s and ’80s. Perhaps he could have made something like Easy, the recent eight-part Netflix series written and directed by indie wunderkind Joe Swanberg, which offers a panoramic view of modern relationships via an expansive collection of loosely connected characters starring in loosely connected episodes.
Allen’s influence on Swanberg is obvious, though not always positive — Easy foregrounds Chicago as prominently as Manhattan in Allen’s films, though it’s the affluent, northern neighborhoods populated by well-heeled creatives that Swanberg focuses on. Given Chicago’s well-publicized problems of late, it’s somewhat incongruous that the worst crisis faced by Chicagoans in Easy‘s universe concerns whether two brothers (Dave Franco and Evan Jonigkeit) should make their hip, underground brewery a legitimate business. But compared with Crisis in Six Scenes, Easy practically presents a rainbow coalition of characters — African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, lesbians, and other invisible beings in Allen’s world.
While far from perfect, at least Easy lives and breathes in a manner that’s recognizable from real life. I don’t know which world Crisis in Six Scenes comes from, but it’s not this one. Of course, given his old saying about the value of presence over actual output, perhaps the work doesn’t matter to Allen as much as the fringe benefits of creation.