Film and TV

The Longest-Ever Woody Allen Project Pushes Him Someplace New

As has been widely noted, Woody Allen's Crisis in Six Scenes isn’t really a television series; its six episodes are not particularly self-contained, and plot developments crest and climax willy-nilly regardless of where each segment ends. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour movie, the longest one Allen’s ever made, and with the option of his usual brevity taken away by the demands of serialization, he’s forced to get weird to make it to the end. Even before the truly strange final two episodes, Crisis (which, yes, has its share of stupefyingly dull passages) is a fairly fascinating iteration of familiar jokes and anxieties with some significant new concerns. It turns out to be unexpectedly serious about a question almost never raised in American movies of any size: To what extent are we obligated to be political citizens? How conscious are we of the necessity to think about that and what can actually be done?

The attenuated plot, such as it is, follows novelist Sidney Munsinger (Allen) and his marriage-counselor wife Kay (Elaine May) as their cozy late-‘60s suburban lives somewhere in the tristate bubble of privilege are disrupted by Lennie Dale (Miley Cyrus), the radicalized, on-the-lam daughter of a family friend who’s on the run from the law. Kay is increasingly enchanted by Lennie’s fervor and convictions, while Sidney remains perpetually appalled by her; nonetheless, the couple embarks on some mildly perilous expeditions to help her flee the country.

The opening credits are in Allen’s trademark Windsor-EF-Elongated font, but the music isn’t jazz — it’s Jefferson Airplane, moaning in “Volunteers” that we’ve “got a revolution.” No “White Rabbit,” no “For What It’s Worth” — kudos to Allen, in his first time out with classic rock, for avoiding the most overused staples of ‘60s clichés. A scene-setting montage — racist chaos in Birmingham, Black Panther marches, anti-Vietnam student protesters — is familiar in a parodic way, and the narrator’s stentorian recitation of the usual historical clichés hints at contempt for rote rundowns of the decade’s talking points. The narrator lays it on thick: “The 1960s. America is brought to the verge of revolution.”

Cut to Allen's Sidney in a barbershop, where his mundane conversation with a derisive hair-trimmer is less interesting than the patron behind him, reading a newspaper that blares the headline “VIET CRISIS WORSE.” That this is in the background, prominent but completely unacknowledged, is a perfect metaphor for Allen's studiously non-topical filmography. Being a dutiful member of the standard left — cracking wise about conservatives without committing further — is his usual move; actually integrating significant political developments into the foreground of the plot is not.

Allen is up to a new kind of self-interrogation, as if he spent enough time reading the usual complaints about his films — why is everyone in NYC so rich and gleamingly white? — and decided to address them head-on. He does so mostly through May’s character. After being worked on by Lennie for a bit, Kay has a crisis: They’ve lived their lives in comfort, she tells her husband, but they never actually do anything to take action, and now she regrets that. In order to exhibit any kind of engagement with politics, Allen travels back 50 years — notably, to the moment when tuning out every social development to focus on his craft and career finally led him to big-screen success.

Cyrus’s Lennie is a caricature of Weatherman-leaning discourse, denouncing “the fascist propaganda machine” et al., but even so her presence prompts everyone around her to question their own politics. Allen does not take this lightly: The conclusions each character reaches, even if they choose studious avoidance (like Allen's Sidney, predictably), matter less than the fact that they had to think them through in the first place. This crisis is a good deal fresher and more interesting than the usual “life is meaningless, maybe we should murder one another” moral dilemmas of Allen's dramas, and, as portrayed by May, Kay’s grappling with her newfound political conscience is genuinely moving.

Cyrus’s Lennie at first seems to inherit the mantle of Allen’s murderous men (from Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors all the way up through Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man), exercising misguided Raskolnikovian energies, but instead turns those “destruction is creation” urges in an entirely new direction. With new questions come, blessedly, new citations. No more greatest hits from Plato and Dostoyevsky — instead, we get Chairman Mao, Marx and, no joke, Frantz Fanon. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d hear Woody Allen characters quoting from The Wretched of the Earth, but here we are.

Very late into their careers, Allen and May are acting and underlining their age, playing characters who can take stumbling eons to get from one end of a sentence to another. Allen’s trademark stammering here is drawn out to sometimes excruciating lengths, and this can get tedious, but it’s also moving. Crisis has time to kill, so there are no short scenes, and the extended time with a lifetime couple feels right — not funny, but lived-in in a way that the relationships in Allen's work often aren't. Otherwise, Allen’s blatant contempt for his assigned medium is bracingly structurally perverse and indifferent to the idea that TV shows should keep moving: After that barbershop opening, it takes two-and-a-half episodes before we leave the area of Allen’s house.

It’s not surprising that Cyrus, another veteran performer, holds her own and achieves the rare trick of making Allen’s dialogue not sound like she’s a puppet for his voice. The chaos she instigates climaxes in a final episode in which Allen’s trademark long master shots document a full “everybody come to our house” farce. One after another, characters we’ve met, and some we haven’t, fill the couple’s home, and the unflagging camera trails along as increasing hordes form and separate into different clusters. It’s legitimately, low-key impressive staging at extended, mobile length — a virtue of Allen’s late work that hasn’t been acknowledged enough. Something old, something new: Crisis pushes Allen in productive new directions, even far enough to finally venture back out to Brooklyn.