Friday, September 30, 2016

Blast from the Past: CRISIS IN SIX SCENES

Woody Allen’s latest production, Crisis in Six Scenes, has his best premise since Midnight in Paris. Set in the late 1960s, the social unrest of the times comes right into the house of a stuck-in-their-ways elderly couple. Their cozy home in upstate New York becomes a refuge for a radical when the daughter of an old friend breaks in. She’s wanted by the government for her membership in a left-wing protest group whose activities include, in addition to the usual demonstrations and rabble rousing, bomb building, cop wounding, and sedition fomenting. The elderly couple wants to help the poor girl out, the more open-minded marriage counselor wife (the wonderful Elaine May in her first role in 16 years) eager to keep her hidden, while the paranoid ad man husband (Allen) descends into a stubborn bundle of helpless nerves as the youthful firebrand (Miley Cyrus) slowly unravels their lives’ predictable patterns. It’s all a great excuse for Allen to explore his usual interest in intermingling relationship tangles with philosophical inquiry.

By far his longest narrative project – clocking in at well over two hours total – it is a six-part miniseries for Amazon. (The shift in form would seem more of a leap if the consistency of his filmmaking over decades – the repetitive themes, recurring character types, the regular font, the usual jazz scores – weren’t already a version of television’s comforting familiarity.) He introduces a large cast of characters with competing loyalties, like the conservative business major (John Magaro) who is smitten by the fetching fugitive, much to the dismay of his debutante fiancĂ© (Rachel Brosnahan). And then there’s a cornucopia of familiar and fun faces as neighbors, patients, parents, cops, and protestors (Becky Ann Baker, Lewis Black, Max Casella, David Harbour, Nina Arianda, Christine Ebersole, Joy Behar, Michael Rapaport, and more). It’s stuffed with personality, but not every character comes to life with as much fullness as the time could permit, like soggy and underdeveloped romantic triangles amongst the younger characters.

There’s also the matter of political rhetoric, for as loaded and provocative as it could be it is instead cozy and comfortable fuzzy hindsight. The prickliest it gets is an early lament about how divisive and polarized the country’s politics are, a wry what-goes-around-comes-around smirk at our circular national crises and our inability to move past them. The great premise is just an excuse to knock contentedly humdrum characters into frazzled situations. I imagine such areas of thinness would be excused if this were a shorter feature. With so much time on his hands, though, there’s simply too much room here for dead air, stiff setups, tone-deaf teasing (a tossed off one-liner about a troubled adopted daughter lands poorly), and lackadaisical reaches for obvious developments. In order to go about stretching this tight little farce over so many segments the plot takes some meandering and the zip in the tension falls slack.

Then there is, of course, the slight stiffness and stodginess that’s crept into Allen’s filmmaking of late, a half-theatrically stilted, half-literary dustbin approach in which exposition is a little too plainly displayed and some zingers come wheezing to the punchline. But even when the writing gets a tad stale, the cast is so energetic and pleasantly amusing, it coasts along on comfortable charms and relaxed charisma. Allen is the quintessential Allen type, May is totally at ease playing the slightly frazzled upper-middle-class pseudo-intellectual (her comfort zone since her Nichols and May days), and Cyrus is just the right young, earnest, half-idealistic/half-cynical goof to send them spinning. Per usual, the right ensemble can carry over slightly below par Allen writing, and this one is overflowing with the exact right casting to elevate the downtimes, the patches that could’ve used another draft or two.

The stage is set for the characters’ conflicts to pile up quite swimmingly, and find occasion in the unevenness for some of the funniest scenes Allen has written in a while. May’s counseling sessions are perfect little sketches, and recurring scenes with her lovable, and increasingly politically rambunctious, little old ladies’ book club are a terrific throughline. Allen and Cyrus spar over food, consumerism, and communist ideals in agreeably prickly wars of words. There’s even a scene in which May scrambles over rooftops after a briefcase of contraband Cuban currency, so this is the sort of story that escalates in sometimes satisfyingly silly and unpredictable ways. Allen has some fun with the historical context, dusting off old quips about Vietnam, hippies, Nixon, Black Panthers, war protestors, and Latin American revolutionaries. (There’s an echo of Bananas there, I suppose.) By the final twenty minutes, which include a sustained and hilarious homage to the Marx brothers’ famous Night at the Opera stateroom sequence, the whole fitfully farcical storyline has arrived at a satisfying crescendo that’s well worth the wait.

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