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CASSANDRA'S DREAM and the complicated legacy of Woody Allen

Ewan McGregor, Colin Farrell in the Woody Allen film CASSANDRA'S DREAM

Any time Woody Allen releases a new film, moviegoers naturally debate where it ranks on his filmography. Is it a triumphant return to form like last year’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, or a dud like 2009’s WHATEVER WORKS? Is it a vibrant echo of his early masterpieces, or a dispiriting reminder that he’s now 76 and his best years may be behind him? There’s rarely a middle ground: It’s either Good Woody or Bad Woody.

When it first opened in 2007, the reviews for CASSANDRA’S DREAM (airing tonight at 8:10P) suggested that it was Bad Woody — that, following 2005’s triumphant MATCH POINT, this thriller, starring Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell as two brothers whose financial woes lead them to accept a sinister request from their rich uncle, was a disappointment. But I loved it at the time, finding it unusually gripping and surprisingly poignant. I may have even liked it more than MATCH POINT, which was acknowledged by many as a late, cold-hearted masterpiece.

CASSANDRA’S DREAM and MATCH POINT, as British-set thrillers about dark subjects, were seen as departures for Allen as a director. But at the same time they were distinctly Woody Allen’esque. Indeed, Allen does certain things so well, in pretty much all of his films, that it can be hard to appreciate the achievement until some time has passed. The writer-director is rightly acclaimed for his witty dialogue, his one-liners and his occasionally cutting satire, but he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his sheer storytelling ability.

CASSANDRA’S DREAM, even though it’s not a comedy, and even though it’s not considered a major work, is a good example. There’s not a shot or a scene that’s wasted. Watch the first 10 minutes of the film — they’re ruthless in their efficiency. In a very short span of time, we see brothers Ian (McGregor) and Terry (Farrell) scope out a boat they like; we see them argue with their working-class restaurateur dad (John Benfield) over the purchase; we see Ian invite a waitress at his dad’s restaurant to a trip on the boat with Terry and his girlfriend; we see the couples having fun; we see Ian and the girl’s relationship develop; then we see him meet Angela (Hayley Atwell), a beautiful actress who instantly bewitches him. And we’re off to the races. The movie’s barely begun, and yet Allen has already thrown a remarkable amount of story at us. And there’s more coming. The film never lets up. We haven’t even met Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) yet.

Here’s a prediction: Years from now, we’ll think of Woody Allen’s films the same way we think of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, or, for that matter, Shakespeare’s plays — as a remarkable, unified body of work. Yes, there may be peaks and valleys, but it’s all Hitchcock, or Shakespeare, and even the least significant part of the oeuvre engages on a distinctive level. We’re already seeing some of this happen. By most contemporary standards, Allen’s films in the 1980s and early 1990s were a mixed bag: For every Oscar-nominated HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, there was at least one disappointment like ANOTHER WOMAN, or an outright flop like SHADOWS AND FOG or SEPTEMBER. And yet, today, many of those films that were written off at the time are now being rediscovered.

This isn’t just mere contrarianism: Few dispute the greatness of acclaimed movies like CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS or RADIO DAYS. They’re just arguing that the other, seemingly lesser films might actually also be great. In other words, we can still have our preferences (I never cared for Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, for example, and I’ve never been a fan of certain Allen films like SCOOP). But ultimately, there won’t be Good Woody or Bad Woody. It will all just be Woody, irreplaceable and inimitable.