To Woody With Love: Woody Allen’s 9 Most Entertaining On-Screen Surrogates
Woody Allen has cemented an historic onscreen legacy by managing to play a grand total of one single character for the last 47 years. (What versatility!) Needless to say, it’s been one hell of a character: Allen’s extreme version of himself, trading on some of the most base cultural stereotypes out there about New Yorkers, Jews and intellectuals, has, logically or not, repeatedly held mainstream America’s interest. Yet, in a halfhearted nod to the idea of variety, Allen hasn’t always played the character himself – due to the constraints of age, style, and physical type, he’s occasionally enlisted actors to come in and do their best Woody Allen imitation over the years. With a new addition to the coterie coming in To Rome With Love – Jesse Eisenberg is a neo-Woody if ever there was one – it’s worthwhile to take a look back at Allen’s nine most entertaining surrogates.
Kenneth Branagh, Celebrity
Could the staid, withdrawn nature of British mores and culture – or those of the Irish, for that matter – be any further from the traits needed to play the Woody character effectively? It seems like a counterintuitive choice, but going with Branagh for the Woody surrogate in Celebrity (one of Allen’s more underappreciated films) was a smart choice; Branagh’s natural composure collides in an interesting way with the foregone conclusion of the character’s neuroses and tics. The result is a performance where Branagh is restrained on the surface while seemingly jittery and anxious underneath – a more subtle and surprisingly effective way of making Allen’s comedy work.
Jason Biggs, Anything Else
One of Allen’s most maligned pictures, it’s this writer’s contention that Anything Else has received an undeservedly bad rap. Sure, the chemistry between Biggs and Christina Ricci is closer to producing liquid nitrogen than hot sparks, but there’s plenty of great one-liners, and Allen himself steals the show. Biggs, one of the least skilled actors to portray a Woody alter ego, is nevertheless entertaining in a performance that paints the character in even broader, more direct strokes than Woody’s on-the-nose performances normally do. It’s as far from subtle as can be, but the broadness and directness of Biggs’ choices sometimes serves to let the delivery of Allen’s bon mots swing for the fences.
Larry David, Whatever Works
Could there be a more appropriate Allen surrogate under the sun than uber-neurotic Larry David? The cultural connection between the two couldn’t be more apparent; Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm could never have been seen as potentially viable in mainstream America without Allen’s career success. Giving his performance far more vitriol than what Allen is capable of, David revels in the misanthropy that is present, but often more subtly disguised, in Allen’s films.
John Cusack, Bullets Over Broadway
This is what happens when a talented, popular actor really uses their likability to channel the Woody character well. As famous as Allen is, his character’s narcissism (as well as his personal transgressions later in life) can make him difficult for audiences to root for at times. Cusack blended the typical Woody persona with his own undeniable charm to create a character who, when in a tough spot, you can’t help but empathize with. That would be good if this was a simple relationship film, but when Cusack’s character is getting into danger by dealing with gangsters, it’s more than good – it’s great.
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