James Berardinelli Knows Film (And Woody Allen) Better Than Most

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[The following essay is an excerpt from my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, now available via Amazon. The full essay can be read on the book’s website.]

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What’s In A Name? Six Major Critics Of Woody Allen

Critic #3: James Berardinelli

Coming off of Dan Schneider’s cerebral highs, it would be easy to dismiss James Berardinelli as a rather ‘plain’ writer not too different from many online critics. Yet if one is aware of the things that have gone on in film criticism over the last few decades, it is clear that Berardinelli is above and beyond most writers in his ability to get at the core of a film, and stay there. No, he is not a stylist like Roger Ebert, but while Ebert would sometimes get lost in his own reveries, or even fail to tackle a film at sufficient length (see Stardust Memories), Berardinelli has a tendency to — well, to be right, which is an underrated skill in a world where mere opinion, no matter how poorly argued or wrought, indubitably reigns. It is for this reason that Ebert once championed Berardinelli[34] in the same way that he’d later do for Schneider, even as these two critics were in some ways closer to each other than to Ebert. In an interesting aside, Berardinelli was also the subject of one of the longest (and deepest) interviews ever conducted with a film critic, via the “Dan Schneider Interviews” on Cosmoetica.[35] In it, Berardinelli comes off precisely in the way of his reviews: as a ‘populist’ critic who does not preen or bullshit, but merely writes of a given film, and that film’s art. This helps differentiate him quite a bit from other critics, and of his twenty or so reviews of Allen’s work, most of them are spot-on, and put him squarely in the camp of Allen’s ‘champions’ — silly and unfortunate as that phrase will sound to future generations parsing these men’s work.

woody allen james berardinelli

Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a film that James Berardinelli gets right. Image via Deadline Hollywood.

Perhaps the most indicative of the above qualities is James Berardinelli’s review of Manhattan.[36] Like Ebert before him, he does not fall prey to most of the cliches surrounding the film, and even when he gets quite close to calling it a ‘love poem’ or ‘letter’ to the city, he saves things somewhat by opting for the word “valentine” instead. No, this is not some great stylistic breakthrough, but it shows that, at the very least, Berardinelli gives a damn about the craft, even in the smaller moments of switching a familiar word for a slightly different one. The film’s cinematography is praised, and Allen’s love for the city duly noted, but such commonplaces merely serve as the critic’s de facto ‘hooks’, for they lull the reader into being more open to Berardinelli’s deeper (and therefore less familiar) comments on the film. Chief among these is that Manhattan has a “darker” quality which belies its “whitewashed, fictionalized” core, that Mary is a perpetual “screw-up” that nonetheless “complements” Isaac’s own issues, that Isaac only thinks he wants Tracy at film’s end, and that Tracy, herself, is the only one at all in touch with her own feelings (shallow as they might be). Indeed, if one were to compare Berardinelli’s review with the typical fluff that is written of Manhattan, it is clear that he is ‘merely’ seeing the film for what it is, as opposed to to forcing his own agenda upon it. He even manages, quite correctly, to note that it is “not as light and airy” as Annie Hall, a fan favorite that, nonetheless, is not as probing as the later film. This is not merely his ‘opinion’ (as Berardinelli might himself argue), but backed up via the sort of analysis he applies here that would simply be impossible for Annie Hall. Thus, as he reveals to Schneider in their interview, it’s clear that he approaches film character-first, while all else flows from this basic reality.

Yet even here there are a few exceptions to Berardinelli’s ability to cut through the noise. I’d disagree, for instance, with his contention that Manhattan is Allen’s best work, but given that the man has about a dozen great films, this would merely be arguing amongst greats, and is therefore not too important, as far as quibbles go. Then, there is Berardinelli’s claim that Manhattan’s ending works because it so goes against most romantic films, as Isaac realizes that he wants “the thing that he has carelessly tossed aside”, which doesn’t really crop up in most ‘romantic’ films. The problem, of course, is that it does, not only in typical genre schlock before Manhattan, but after it, too, as women (and men!) finally see ‘what they’ve missed’, even as it’s usually right under their nose. In fact, Manhattan’s strength is in Berardinelli’s earlier claim, that Isaac only “thinks” he is in love. Yet I’d go a step further and say that he merely goes on to manipulate Tracy just as selfishly as before, thus ending the film on a romantic illusion all the while undermining it. Most glaring of all, however, is his insistence that it is “impossible not to mention” the odd portrayal of a relationship between a middle-aged man and an underage girl, given the revelations surrounding Allen’s personal life, and that the on-screen relationship takes on an “eerie, prescient quality” that was to some extent “substantiated” by his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn. Of course, the mention can be avoided quite naturally, as I’ve done in my own review, except for the necessity to speak of Isaac’s selfishness as borne out by such a relationship. Moreover, it is simply incorrect — troubling, even — to say that Allen’s marriage in any way substantiates sex abuse allegations against a prepubescent child, for while the former hints at the man’s immaturity, vis-a-vis dating a 19 (or 21, depending on birth records) year-old woman with whom he has so little in common, the latter is an out-and-out sociopathic act. No, these off-the-cuff claims don’t matter much to Berardinelli’s otherwise well thought-out review, but they were made, regardless, and to not address them would be unfair.

His take on Manhattan Murder Mystery fares even better.[37] Despite most viewers (and Allen, himself) considering it a ‘fluff’ film, it is a bit deeper than this, despite the film’s “mystery” more or less revolving around a possible murder. Yet there are other things at play, too, such as its well-done allusions and appropriations of Rear Window, Double Indemnity, and The Lady from Shanghai, sometimes even exceeding those films (Rear Window, especially), and, as Berardinelli argues, “on-target realism” wherein the couple’s marriage “is put under the microscope”. This is certainly borne out in the film’s evidence, as the viewer senses Keaton’s attraction to Alan Alda right away, and the viewer can’t really tell whether the latter merely humors her by offering ‘leads’, or feels that a murder has taken place. Berardinelli’s claim for “on-target realism” is especially apt, such as in scenes where Keaton seems to be having a breakdown, as she might be “obsessed with a macabre fantasy”, or when Keaton, challenged by the ‘new girl’, turns passive-aggressive as she is no longer in the spotlight for Alan Alda, nor her husband. I wish Berardinelli would go into more detail on these claims, for they really don’t appear in most critics’ reviews, but one gets the feeling that — even when not explicitly argued — Berardinelli gets things in an intuitive way, which ultimately find their way into his writing.

A wonderful little scene in Manhattan Murder Mystery, wherein Carol’s words don’t merely propel the film’s ‘thriller’ aspect, but really characterizes her, as well as the perceptions of her own marriage. These are the small, revealing moments that James Berardinelli tends to notice, thus putting him a few cuts above most critics:

Yet the most interesting (and well-written) part of Berardinelli’s review is something that I completely disagree with. He writes: “A word has to be said about the annoying cinematography of Carlo Di Palma, who returns after causing audiences motion-sickness with his wobbly, hand-held camerawork inHusbands and Wives.” Carlo Di Palma is, at the very least, an excellent cinematographer (Red Desert; Blow-Up; Radio Days) who knows how to make ‘form’ complement, jar, or simply attune itself to a film’s content. Sure, his work in Husbands and Wives is not ‘elegant’ in the traditional sense, and is lesser than the above-named films, but it’s absolutely fitting regardless, even as it’d get anomic and a tad overdone by the time of Deconstructing Harry. At worst, one may say that he is neutral here in that regard, and at best that he brings out the film’s ‘deeper’ conflicts visually from what it is merely implicit in the script. Consider, however, Berardinelli’s next line: “While the intention is obviously to draw the viewer into the film, it actually has the opposite effect; the camera cannot compensate the way the human eye can.” Again, I disagree, but note how, from a purely technical standpoint, he builds his own writing up with a claim, then delivers pay-off with the last line re: “the human eye”, as it captures his own thinking with a good comparison full of deeper implications. This is simply good writing, for even if one disagrees with his judgment, Berardinelli makes an interesting posit that has relevance to things beyond the film. No, I don’t think the camera’s job is to “compensate”, but offer ‘tricks’ the eye can apprehend, which are then transmuted into something of ideational value in the brain. This is why Gordon Willis’s work in Manhattan is not merely ‘beautiful’, as is typically claimed, but gives the film a dream-like quality that exacerbates its own illusions. Yet Berardinelli’s comment made me stop and think over its meaning, for even if I’d come to reject his conclusions, the point of good criticism is to cause one to think about the item in question, not merely ‘share’ a point of view for the hell of it.

The ‘slight’ and more recent films Midnight in Paris[38] and Whatever Works[39] are treated just as fairly. Probably the most noticeable thing about both reviews is how Berardinelli refuses to simply ‘give in’ to the flood of praise for the former, and the condemnation of the latter. Nor is it the ill-argued ‘contrarian’ viewpoints of a Pauline Kael or Armond White, but fully reasoned, with little to criticize in that regard. Midnight in Paris, for instance, is a “trifle” that is “entertaining”, partly due to its fluffiness, and partly due to Allen’s choice of theme: that of “succumbing to daydreams”, which gives it an emotional core but without the intellect to make it touch the viewer “in more than a fleeting fashion”. Note how the film is not savaged (as Allen’s haters have done), but is not embraced either, due to its “undemanding” nature, lackluster screenplay, and “preachy” elements. Yes, Berardinelli praises the cinematography, but what of it? After having seen the film several times, I can still remember a few interesting shots, and the like, but if a film lacks the essentials, it cannot quite thrive on visuals alone, a fact that Berardinelli realizes. His take on Whatever Works is similarly pointed, with the film praised for its humor, yet criticized for its narrative slack. For instance, while Boris kicks things off pretty well with a speech to the audience, such rants start to lose their bite over time, as the ‘surprise’ becomes expected, and his perceived aggression wanes. The film also “loses steam during an extended segment that focuses on Melodie’s affair with a younger man” — to which I’d add much of the ‘parental arc’, as well, since it is even fluffier than Boris’s portion of the tale. Again, this is not the outright damning the film has been subjected to, but an attempt to be fair, and apply a corrective that is much-needed at a time when Allen’s late-age worth is either hyper-inflated (Midnight in Paris) or flippantly dismissed (Cassandra’s Dream), even as Berardinelli, himself, can be said to be at fault here, too.

Cassandra's Dream Berardinelli

Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream: a film that James Berardinelli gets quite wrong.

The flaws in James Berardinelli’s review of Cassandra’s Dream[40] are less apparent than that of other critics’, but they still exist. The first is the conflation with Match Point, as if Cassandra’s Dream is a re-working of that film rather than drawing from even earlier ones (such as 1989’s Crimes) from which Match Point ultimately derives, as well as Woody’s more immanent dramatic imprint that does not really have a clear-cut source. In fact, even Berardinelli’s claim for the film’s “central theme” (“killing someone is not a deed undertaken lightly because of the scars it can leave”) is quite at odds with that ofMatch Point, or even Crimes, wherein there are no scars, and ultimately no guilt. Indeed, for while the basic conflict is from 1989, there is plenty of new material in the scoring (Classical and jazz vs. Philip Glass’s ominous sound), character (a strong amoral force vs. two weak, guilted, and manipulated ones), women (Miriam’s non-entity, vs. the three well-sketched ones in Cassandra’s Dream — Angela, especially), themes (amorality vs. ‘Murder will out’, and to an extent does), symbols, visuals, and dialogue, down to the poesy of specific comments that mark it as quite apart from its predecessors. Berardinelli goes on to write of the film’s “obvious story trajectory”, but where in the film do we ever see evidence that Howard will make his request? Or that Angela will wise up and mature? Or that Ian will die? Sure, the build-up is that Terry will ‘get his’, but how this happens is the real inversion, and what works on a technical, emotional, and intellectual level in a way that reverberates beyond ‘mere’ ending (which, by the way, Berardinelli in fact praises). The film’s romance is called “flat”, but is handled even better than in Match Point, for while Chris and Nola’s scenes of flirting were quite predictable — down to their stock tropes — the romance, here, merely flickers, but just enough to sketch Ian vis-a-vis Angela as a clueless social climber with no real confidence. Angela, herself, has a depth that Nola lacks, for while both seem without much talent, Angela develops an emotional maturity that allows for some memorable dialogue that would ill-fit Nola. And while Berardinelli claims that “planning and committing the crime brings Ian to life”, but is ultimately “abandoned”, this is not so, for one sees the slippery-slope Ian is on, his break from the ethical universe (or so it seems), and, ultimately, his ‘return’, for he cannot kill his brother, and is therefore weaker in this regard than Howard, and is a mere ‘loser’ to Howard’s ‘winner’, further mirroring Crimes and Misdemeanors rather than Match Point. Yes, there are murders committed in all three films, but the characters of the first two are clearly built for that ‘other’ world, wherein anything goes. By contrast, the boys inCassandra’s Dream are not, no matter how much they think they are. Thus, if the first two films are a turning away from Raskolnikov’s delusions of grandeur, which are killed off by mere guilt,Cassandra’s Dream gives into them half-way, if one only remembers that Howard profits, and does not care.

Berardinelli’s take on Celebrity[41] is similarly in line with others’ criticisms, although he defends his claims much better than most writers due to the evidence he provides. Even so, some of the argument is far more emotional than objective, as they reflect a ‘Berardinelli’ aesthetic (however rarely it comes out in most reviews) that has no bearing on the film, itself. For instance, Kenneth Branagh (and by extension, Allen as writer) is taken to task for being a mere Woody imitator, for it is “an odd and disconcerting experience”. Indeed, “All of the Allen mannerisms and vocal inflections, including the stammering and whining, are there. In fact, there are times when, if you close your eyes, you’ll swear that it’s Allen on the screen, not Branagh.” This is true, but if this were another director’s film, would Berardinelli make such a claim? In other words, would it impact the character’s realism, as he exists in the film’s universe? Berardinelli seems to think so (“it’s difficult to accept the actor is a neurotic, sex-obsessed New York Jew”), but a mere glance at the film’s romantic scenes shows that Allen would never have been able to pull this off successfully. For instance, Branagh’s romance with Winona Ryder is not mere farce, as their flirtations over the dinner table are realistic, not comic, as they’d inevitably be with Allen, and Branagh’s strikeouts with various models paint him as a loser who simply couldn’t ‘make it’, whereas Allen would simply be a loser who’d no right to even try. These are not subtle differences, but large ones, and help keep Branagh as a realistic manipulator. Berardinelli also claims that the screenplay “meanders aimlessly, stumbling forward without an apparent destination”. But if a screenplay is written for the characters (and it is), how can it be said to “meander”, when the film’s leads have such rich arcs and resolutions? Branagh, for instance, tries to enter into ‘that’ world via manipulation and foolishness, but fails, ultimately coming to the conclusion that he’s more or less like any one of his freakish, zombie-like school chums, while Judy Davis becomes something ‘better’, in one sense, against her own expectations, yet someone that she admits she really cannot respect. Yes, Allen’s notions of celebrity are not “clear” in the sense of a definitive statement, but what of the interplay between the characters, themselves, and what can be learned of fame and disillusionment from that? In short, the viewer must ask: who is better off? Judy Davis, the apparently happy success who’s changed her life, or Branagh, the loathsome user who’s taken quite the hit? I have my own answer, as do others, but the answer, itself, recapitulates the spectator’s own world-view (I do not think, for example, it is all clear-cut), and thus engages him in a way that is quite uncommon. No,Celebrity may not be one of Allen’s masterpieces, but it’s certainly one of the better Woody films for reasons that Berardinelli seems to miss, even as they’re nestled within the very evidence that he uses to construct a diametric view.

Woody Allen’s Celebrity takes a hit with Berardinelli, but notice how well-acted and realistic these flirtations are — something that’d really be impossible with the purely comic Allen:

In this vein, Berardinelli’s review of Vicky Cristina Barcelona is quite interesting to look at, for while I agree with his general thrust and ultimate conclusions, I disagree with the reasoning, i.e., how he gets there, which is arguably even more important.[42] No, the film is not a “step up” from Cassandra’s Dream, as he claims, but it is good, in parts, and quite stylish to boot. Yet instead of tackling far weightier issues (such as the film’s poor characters), Berardinelli’s first complaint is about the film’s voice-over, which is called a “crutch”, and merely recapitulative of the obvious. But while at times true, it is also true, as Dan Schneider notes, that the voice-over serves some “handy elisions of superfluous moments”[43] — not ground-breaking, admittedly, but certainly not damning either. This is a minor point, at worst, but James Berardinelli goes on to repeat the trite advice of ‘show, don’t tell’ as “one of the most basic rules of filmmaking”. It is not, and a quick glance at films as diverse as Another Woman,My Dinner with Andre, and Little Dieter Needs to Fly proves that ‘telling’ can lead to greatness just as easily, provided it — like any artistic technique — is merely well-handled. Yet the voice-over, itself, takes up virtually no screen time, as most of the tale is ‘shown’, for good or ill. Then, after (correctly) deriding the film’s predictable arcs, he calls the film’s characters “interesting”. I must disagree, however, for the film’s predictability is completely dependent upon the fact that its own characters are little more than stereotypes, even as the two girls attempt to transcend this in the end. And while Berardinelli gets one of the film’s themes — that of shifting relationships and desires — he also misses an even deeper issue for all involved: that they are utterly stuck in one mode of being, with Cristina as a perpetual wanderer, Vicky as a mere veneer of self-assurance, and the two Spaniards as self-destructive poseurs to whom the American tourists are simply a new stage in the same old ‘marital’ drama they will probably have to deal with for the rest of their lives. This is really where the film’s poesy shines through (however weakly), and why Berardinelli, perhaps, sees the most in Rebecca Hall’s performance. No, this is not one of his better reviews, but I suspect that, even here, as the words come out, the instinct tries but cannot catch up.

Other reviews are also quite interesting to look at. In Bullets Over Broadway[44], David is seen as a poseur (“If the common people don’t understand your work, you’re a genius.”), and the film as “toying” with issues of art and integrity — after all, David’s conflict is self-created, and only applies to real artists, like Cheech — while skewering “the entertainment industry as a whole”. In fact, David is no tortured genius, at all, and issues with the ‘art world’ (as seen via David, especially) are foisted upon the viewer in a “clever” way. Deconstructing Harry[45] is likewise tread carefully, with Berardinelli refusing to go the ‘tabloid’ route, and instead noting that “if [the film] has an overriding theme, it’s that the man and the artist can be separated”, with examples of Harry’s art “redeeming” him — even if the redemption is not in this life, for he does not know how to exist in it. Match Point[46] has some focus on an unexpected portion of the film: that of the relationship between Chris and his wife, as Berardinelli argues that the marriage breaks down quite realistically, not through any melodrama (Chris’s affair excepted), but through the barest of words, glances, and physical positionings that imply such. This is an unconventional angle, yet a rather fruitful one. And his review of Blue Jasmine[47]takes the film down from the over-the-top praise it has received, as he chooses to focus on both the good and the bad in a way that most have missed. Jasmine’s central issue, he argues, is its “lapses of focus”, for while the Cate Blanchett’s performance trumps all, Allen’s “restructuring” of Tennessee Williams’s play “considerably reduces the most memorable aspect of Streetcar: the Blanche/Stanley dynamic. Here, with Stanley split in two (Clay is Ginger’s ex-husband and Bobby Cannivale is her current boyfriend), there’s not much juice in that interaction, and no sexual tension whatsoever. By default, this becomes Blanche/Jasmine’s movie and the narrative drifts aimlessly along with her.” Now, I do not think the film is as close to Streetcar is is claimed, but the claim of Stanley being “split” is original, well-argued, and apt, with Berardinelli’s subsequent claims all the easier to accept because of this insight. At the very least, this is more than what other reviewers have done with the comparisons to Tennessee Williams, which tend to be more throwaway than analytical, serving, as they do, the critic’s ego rather than his reader.

Art may not be ‘permanent’, but of all human endeavors thus far, it is the only one with some longevity. Yet in the search for great writers and other stylistic innovators, an equally valuable asset can be lost — that of contemplation, an ability to think first before writing ever begins. James Berardinelli has this, and sometimes even more of it than Roger Ebert, who serves as Berardinelli’s alter ego in some respects. One only needs to compare his willingness to take a film on for what that film is (even if at times quite wrong) vis-a-vis Cahiers du Cinema, or even the work of the next three critics, to see where the value resides. No, Berardinelli will never be ‘hip’, nor some ‘sensation’, yet that means he will never be a mere fad, either. One is interested in film. The other’s merely preoccupied with it.

4 Comments James Berardinelli Knows Film (And Woody Allen) Better Than Most

    1. Alex SheremetAlex Sheremet

      I’ve read that before, and in fact agree that Berardinelli is a pretty dull writer, and has no real style. But although I’ve not followed him regularly in a while, there was a decade stretch, perhaps, where Berardinelli was simply more right and gave better justifications for his judgments than most critics.

      That bare minimum – being right more often than not, and knowing how to use evidence – is absent in over 99% of critics.

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