Given that Woody Allen pours so much of himself into his films — despite his protests to the contrary — can we really expect to learn more from a documentary? Director Robert B. Weide (“How to Lose Friends & Alienate People”) attempts to dig deeper in “Woody Allen: A Documentary,” an over-arching portrait of Allen’s life and work as a filmmaker, comedian and actor. Originally a three-hour series made for American public television, it hits the cinemas with a more easily digested length.
The doc starts off tracing Allen’s childhood in the New York borough of Brooklyn in the 1940s and ’50s and relates how Allen landed a job as a comedy writer while still a teen; he’d go in after school and bang out 50 jokes a day.
It’s a telling anecdote, because in a sense he’s never changed: Allen’s 40-plus film career as a director has long been one of throwing it all out there and seeing what sticks, a belief that in quantity lies quality. Great films such as “Manhattan” or “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” are followed by clunkers like “Whatever Works” or “Stardust Memories.” Of course, “Manhattan” was adored by the public and “Stardust” reviled, while Allen seems to have the opposite view; indeed, no two viewers seem to have identical lists of their favorite Allen flicks, which may justify his approach after all.
Weide’s doc features the full cooperation of its subject, and Allen fans will delight to see him banging away on the same typewriter he’s used for the past 60 years, and rummaging through the bedside-table drawer full of yellow legal paper and Post-it notes that constitutes his script vault.
Of course, this also amply demonstrates the 76-year-old director’s stubborn old-fogey-ism, apparent enough in his belief there’s been no decent music since the ’30s or so, and no worthwhile cinema since the ’60s. While this is part of his shtick, it’s also worth noting that contemporaneity is an essential ingredient of humor, and the lack of it may be why Allen’s comedies have been the weakest of his recent films.
Many of Allen’s collaborators appear in Weide’s doc attesting to the speed with which he writes and directs, and Allen himself admits to an essential lack of patience that prevents him from making a truly great film, saying how he’d rather be home watching a Knicks game than doing another take. Allen also complains about how many compromises he has to make when editing a film, yet this too is directly tied to the pace of doing a film a year.
It’s hard to ignore this lack of discipline in Allen’s work: When we revisit a scene from 1977’s “Annie Hall,” where Allen’s character says, “I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable,” it’s kind of stunning to realize that same line could have been in any of his films or interviews from the past decade, and probably was.
And yet, this is frustrating simply because when he’s on his game, Allen is one of the best. As the doc moves through Allen’s ’70s oeuvre — from the broad comedy of “Sleeper” or “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask),” through the neurotic-romanticism of “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” and the intense portrait of family breakdown in “Interiors” — you realize how hard he was pushing himself, trying to go further, in both content and cinematic style.
There’s good commentary on this in the doc — from such people as Diane Keaton, Martin Scorsese, Mariel Hemingway and L.A. Weekly critic F.X. Feeney — but Allen himself remains an elusive figure. So many of his films are based upon neurotic characters that you can’t help but expect a doc to get a bit psychological. But, as usual for the privacy-inclined filmmaker, cooperation comes with a price: access to old photos, interviews, the director at work on set, old footage of him boxing with a kangaroo on some cheesy TV show, reminiscing about the old movie houses on Bleecker Street, but no personal questions.
For example, was “Manhattan” influenced by the director’s own amour fou with 17-year-old actress Stacey Nelkin? Don’t expect this doc to tell you. When Weide reaches the Mia Farrow/Soon-Yi Previn point of Allen’s life — where he was discovered to be having an affair with his partner’s adopted daughter — this near-career meltdown, which has clearly influenced so much of Allen’s work since, is barely discussed as anything more than “interruptions to work.” Farrow, needless to say, is not interviewed for the film, one of the few Allen muses who is noticeably absent.
Weide may wind up skirting the hard questions about the iconic director, but it’s still impossible to sit through this doc and not want to spend a weekend wading back into some vintage Allen. I’ve got “Manhattan,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Match Point” stacked up and ready to go; I’m sure your triple-feature will be different.