Like so many great comic artists, Woody Allen feels the deep need to express his seriousness. He may be the finest comic filmmaker of the last 20 years, but he really wants to be Ingmar Bergman.
Thus he made the ultra-serious Interiors, which was as dour as anything Bergman ever made and one of Allen’s most muddled efforts. Since then, however, Woody has created a string of films that beautifully balance his comedy and his melancholia, most lately the bittersweet Hannah and Her Sisters and Radio Days.
His newest, September, finds him tilting toward the serious again. Although it contains a few more grins that Interiors, it might as well be called Interior, since the entire somber film takes place on the main floor of a country house in Vermont.
There, a group of people have gathered to suffer. Mia Farrow is there to recuperate from a suicide attempt of a few months earlier; her neighbor, Denholm Elliott, has fallen in love with her in that time.
Unfortunately, she has fallen in love with the writer (Sam Waterston) who’s living in her guest house. This is bad, because he’s fallen in love with her best friend (Dianne Wiest, the Oscar-winning sister from Hannah). Meanwhile, Farrow’s mother (Elaine Stritch) and physicist stepfather (Jack Warden) visit, and old tension erupts between mother and daughter.
The first half of the movie is one evening; the second half is the next morning. The evening is quite lovely, as a storm knocks out the power and conversations take place by candlelight. When the physicist begins talking of the beauty of the stars, “vaguely evocative of some deep truth,” and the piano quietly begins playing “Moonglow,” you know Allen is finding the proper mix of his pessimism and his romanticism.
The next morning is problematical. Except for the comic relief of two prospective house buyers (“I’ve always wanted a pit bull”), the depression continues, and Allen takes a strange lurch toward melodrama with the revelation that the conflict between mother and daughter stems from an old murder (based on the notorious Lana Turner case, where the daughter murdered Turner’s gangster boyfriend).
In many ways the film seems oppressive and unnatural. As is usual with Allen’s films, the woman are far more interesting than the men; Elaine Stritch, once a popular Broadway performer, has by far the showiest performance in the movie. Denholm Elliott, however, does lovely work as the sad romantic.
Allen is known for extensive reshooting, but he actually shot September twice. The first time, with Maureen O’Sullivan (Farrow’s real mom) as the mother and Sam Shepard as the writer, was scrapped by Allen after filming was completed. One wonders whether the creative juices are sapped by such a process.
More troubling is the muffling of Allen’s natural comic talent. What’s the purpose? September is Allen’s most disappointing movie since Interiors, and that’s no coincidence. Humorlessness does not necessarily equate with seriousness – after all, how many “serious” films of the last decade have been more enriching, more valuable, more lasting than Annie Hall or Manhattan?
First published in The Herald, December 17, 1987
Now that Allen is persona non grata, here I go marching boldly into oblivion with a ringing endorsement of his movies – some of them, anyway, if not September. You have to remember that at this point, Allen was in the kind of position that would allow a filmmaker to re-shoot the entire film – an astonishing act of hubris, or foolishness, or something. He wouldn’t reach that level again, in terms of artistic respect.