26 November 2003 | MisterWhiplash
Imperfect, but it's still one of Woody's smartest scripts, with other incentives...
...and, in Sandy Bates, the lead of his satire on celebrity, loves, and his usual themes of turmoil over life and death, is a sense that Woody Allen is doing one of two things (or both perhaps)- taking from his own life and thinly disguising characters and situations, or using his own public image in film's culture to look through the looking glass slightly at some of his popular themes. This is not to say that the film is one of his very best. I could see what Allen was doing, for example, with the scenes and instances of tipping the hat to Fellini and his masterwork 8 1/2- the two films share that common thread of an artist in an overall funk of bittersweet memories and creative confusion. But while Fellini made his film out of a burning need to reveal all of his love for cinema out of his angst(s) after La Dolce Vita, Allen's track record shows that he's near incapable of waiting around too long to make a film (he's averaged nearly a film a year in 37 years up till 2003) so much of what comes forth in Stardust Memories isn't as much autobiographical as it is told through a character filtered with and not with himself. In short, a lot of the 8 1/2 dues were my least favorite parts in the movie (though I did like the quick Superman-type mementos).
But does that make Stardust Memories a failure, pretentious? Not to my point of view- once Allen starts the story rolling, and he gets his characters/actors into the gist of the film, it goes along like most other Allen films involving phobias, fears, loves (women), and sophisticated sense of varied parody. There are moments that Allen's stand-up act is injected into the mix, or a scene that could've been a chapter from one of his books, but mostly the audience gets the sense of his OWN love of cinema via Sandy Bates. Bates is another one of those Woody characters that seems all the more impressively formed and executed since it feels like the Woody we know, but Bates is just a little more on the edge of satire, viewing into his own self-doubts and trying to see if there can be any hope or meaning to it all- or if he can tell funny jokes.
The script contains some of the most memorable moments of Allen's career in one-liners (there are a few from the fans and autograph-hounds that stick out) and in having a natural flow, close to a type of poetry, in the conversations and dialog in the film. Even if one doesn't laugh, it definitely shows the work of a wonderful writer at the peak of his game. His direction is also intrinsically interesting, especially how he uses the unique, dark, and evoking cinematography by the great Gordon Willis, and the unusual editing stylizing by Susan Morse (though, once again, some of these editing tricks are to Fellini's credit). And the performances work well enough for the material, more often than not, with Charlotte Rampling as Dorrie, Bates' wonderfully stressed ex-girlfriend, Marie-Christine Barrault as Isobel, an old friend who left her husband for him, Jessica Harper as Daisy, whom he falls head over heels for while she and her professor-boyfriend are at the Stardust attending Bates' appearance(s), and Tony Roberts, who had a worthy supporting role in Annie Hall, pops up here as well.
I can recommend Stardust Memories for Woody Allen's main fan base, as it gives those who love his early films and his films that have more mature subject matter a bit of a (delightful) challenge. I don't know if I could recommend it however, as the very first film someone could see if the person wants to start of his films. There is an amusing quality to it that could give non-Woody fans a second thought about the filmmaker's work, but it's hard to say. It's not an altogether easy film to watch, or is it a masterwork like Manhattan. By the end of it, never-the-less, my time was not the least wasted, I knew I saw some ingenious scenes and jokes here and there, and there was a subtlety to it that has me liking it and responding more to it on repeat viewings. Is it homage? Sure, but it's a blend of homage (or as Roberts says "ripping it off") and a personal, nearly original style, and it ends up, on a repeat viewing, a major work. 9.5/10