When Woody Allen stars in one of his movies, you either love it or hate it. In the latter case, you can find it wordy, narcissistic, confused and neurotic. If you love it, well, you'll find it
wordy, narcissistic, confused and neurotic
but with talent!
If we wanted to categorise Allen's films, we could discern a first period that ends with "Annie Hall": these are generally comedies that look like a succession of sketches. As a reminder, before being a playwright and a film director, Allen started his career as a comedy writer and then a stand-up comedian, for almost twenty cumulated years: this influenced his first pictures.
After "Annie Hall", he found a style where comedy, if present, is a supporting element instead of a central focus. This movie is hence a turning point in Allen's career; it certainly is the best of his first period, and arguably one of his best ever. With retrospect, it seems as if he wanted to crown his first style before moving on to something different.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
"Annie Hall" feels like a stand-up long feature, which constitutes its originality as well as its limit. The stand-up comedy style is fully assumed: it starts with Allen telling two jokes to the audience, and ends with another joke. The main character is a comedian and we see him on stage once, a reference to Allen's former career. Revealingly, he narrates the whole story. There is a self-parody component, whereby Allen caricatures himself as Alvy and the tone is detached.
Throughout the movie there is at least a joke every minute, addressing very different topics, some of them serious, albeit generally in a light mode: life, love, death, the universe, relationships, time passing, childhood, WWII, knowledge, culture, humour, lifestyles, Jewish identity, psychoanalysis, drugs, sex and how (not) to cook a lobster.
The movie is loaded with funny directing tricks. Even if most of them are not new, they efficiently support the humorous tone and keep the audience focused, since the stand-up style on its own is difficult to sustain on the long term: talking to the audience, placing the adult character in childhood scenes, having characters comment past scenes shown to them, subtitling characters' thoughts as they talk about something else, introducing a cartoon sequence, having an actual celebrity (McLuhan) intervening in the fiction, etc.
However "Annie Hall" is more than this. Form, far from being random, is clever. Narration is non-linear, transitions are frequently made by thought associations (as in psychoanalysis), past and present mingle, shots are on average long: we are in Alvy's brain.
Progressively, the movie gains depth, as the relationship between the main two characters evolves. Annie Hall matures from a naive woman, intellectually dominated by Alvy, to an elaborate lady who knows what she wants, while Alvy stagnates with his issues. (Here we must ask: what does the beautiful, classy, witty Annie find in the neurotic, possessive, paranoid Alvy? Answer: the mysteries of love.)
Additionally, the movie increasingly becomes nostalgic. What gives it a special touch is the fact the story between the main two characters is partly inspired by the actual relationship between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton themselves: Keaton's actual family name is Hall and her nickname is Annie; Keaton admitted she recognised herself in the role; Allen and Keaton had a relationship for about a year in 1970, broke up and remained friends
as in the movie. The fact the actual relationship ended approximately six years before the film adds a melancholic element.
Retrospection is an essential theme. At the beginning we see past scenes (childhood, flashbacks), mainly in humorous mode. Occasionally some past scenes are tragic, for instance WWII with an extract of the documentary "The Sorrow and the Pity", followed by the characters asking themselves: what would we have done during these troubled times?
Increasingly, past elements are not coming from "outside" of the movie (i.e. before the love story) but "within". This creates a nostalgic feeling: the happy times we witnessed are now gone. For instance when Alvy comes to Annie's place to chase the spider after they broke up, on her wall are the photos she took when he was previously struggling with the lobsters. Later on, Alvy dates another woman and again tries to cook lobsters. However while the earlier lobster scene was funny, his new date does not understand his humour: we are sorry the relationship between Alvy and Annie has ended, with their complicity and wits. At the end, Annie goes to see "The Sorrow and the Pity" as she did before with Alvy, even though now they are separated.
Accentuating the sense of nostalgia, the whole movie actually is a flashback made by Alvy about his relationship with Annie. Eventually, the end sequence culminates in nostalgic mood: past scenes between Alvy and Annie silently flow, while Annie sings off-screen "Seems Like Old Times", a melancholic song if there ever was one. They are now simple friends; instead of spending time together, they just have a drink in a café. In the last shot, Alvy stays on the sidewalk to watch Annie leave: he still is in love with her.
On top of flashbacks, this final sequence subtly refers to earlier episodes: a final nail in past's coffin. Annie singing refers to her previously singing "It Had to be You" in the nightclub. But whereas the nightclub sequence was a noisy disaster, the final song is perfect: past scenes then shown are hence beautified and idealised. Also, Alvy makes a final joke about the absurdity of relationships: it closes the loop with his two jokes at the very beginning of the movie. However instead of facing the audience, his voice is now off-screen: without Annie, he fades into a shadow of his former self.
Funny, nostalgic, partly absurd (as life is), sometimes awkward (as life is), "Annie Hall" does deliver the eggs.