Something about television brings out the nostalgist in Woody Allen (well, y’know, even more than usual), and understandably – it’s a medium inextricably tied to his own early days. He got his start as a staff writer for The Colgate Comedy Hour, Sid Caesar specials, and sitcoms like The Gary Moore Show; in his stand-up and early (comic) filmmaking days, he was a fixture on Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan, Dick Cavett, and Merv Griffin’s shows, and even had a couple of prime-time specials. But after his Nixon-baiting Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story was yanked from PBS, he swore off the medium, and mostly stuck to his guns. His last major television project was a 1994 TV movie adaptation of his hit ‘60s play Don’t Drink the Water, in which he was now old enough to play the harried patriarch confounded by his times.
So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s basically playing the same role in his new Amazon series Crisis in Six Scenes – since he’s been doing this so long, his recent works have mostly consisted of echoes of his previous ones. His last feature film, July’s Café Society, was a retread of his 1986 masterpiece Radio Days; Irrational Man was another riff on Crimes and Misdemeanors; Magic in the Moonlight mined similar territory to Scoop. Xeroxes are inevitably not as sharp as the originals, and that’s certainly the case here. So while Crisis is an improvement on those films —hums along inoffensively enough, and has its fair share of modest pleasures— that’s not a hard bar to clear.
The first episode opens with the familiar white-on-black Windsor-font credits, but scored to Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” – a pat cue, to be sure, but pretty radical for the rock-loathing Allen. The time, the narrator ponderously intones, is “the 1960s,” – late ‘60s to be more precise, as Sidney Munsinger (Allen) and his wife Kay (Elaine May) find their comfortable suburban existence crashed by Lennie (Miley Cyrus), a Patty Hearst-esque on-the-run radical revolutionary from the “Constitutional Liberation Army.” A family friend of Kay’s, she asks to hide out with them until the heat dies down and she can flee the country; hijinks ensue.
There’s a fair among of in-jokiness to the enterprise; in the very first scene, novelist Sidney tells his barber he’s decided to slum it by doing a television series (the barber, not a fan of his books, muses, “It’s probably an easier medium for you”), rationalizing that “It’s a lucrative medium!” (“They kept making a better deal and a better deal,” he’s said of Amazon.) At the end of the final episode, his character notes, “I was just thinking maybe I should dump this whole idiotic television show thing… Hey, I’m not getting any younger!”
The show that comes between those bookends doesn’t really take full advantage of the format; he’s confessed to initially approaching it as “a movie in six parts,” and it basically is (and barely longer than one – each of the six shows runs about 23 minutes, including credits). But perhaps because it allows consumption in smaller pieces – I watched it three episodes at a time, and would suggest that as maximum binge intake – it doesn’t seem as strained as his recent pictures. To be sure, there are plenty of dud jokes and under-developed scenes. But the charisma and skill of the performers goes a long way. May is a true commodity, her flawless comic timing and characterization making even weaker lines into comic gems (she did similar heavy lifting in his Small Time Crooks), and she and Allen are wonderfully comfortable together.
And Cyrus is a revelation. She displays real spark and comic ingenuity in a role that could’ve easily been played as grating or pushy; a lean this way or that, and it looks like she’s been written as the fool. But Cyrus is too smart a cookie for that – she lends the character a ruthless intelligence, and turns Lennie’s utter contempt for Sidney (“I’m not gonna be judged by this middlebrow dimwit!”) into a comic gift that keeps on giving, mercilessly mocking his age, nebbishyness, and bourgeois values. The two of them – actors and the characters alike – spar well, dramatizing an inter-generational conflict that isn’t exactly period specific.
Crisis marks a rare late-period acting turn for Allen, who’s only appeared in two of his own films in the past decade (2006’s Scoop and 2012’s To Rome With Love). He gets some laughs, though it’s hard not to notice that his elevated age has thrown his timing off a touch; his fumbling, in spots, sounds more legitimate and less like comic effect. But his return stint in front of the camera prompts some recurring bits: a visit to the doctor reveals that, yes, he is a hypochondriac (“I was right,” Kay tells him after, “it was chapped lips, it wasn’t the flesh-eating virus”), and there’s some business with a cash pick-up and drop-off for Lennie that recalls the aging-couple-in-action climax of Manhattan Murder Mystery.
Crisis in Six Scenes certainly has its problems: too many weak buttons (as with most of Allen’s recent work, his apparent disinterest in second draft screenplays hurts the work), weirdly recycling the same music cues over and over (a habit that reached its apex with Irrational Man), an all-hands-on-deck climax that’s too self-consciously “madcap.” But it’s not half-assed, the way his recent films have been; it’s just relaxed, and the difference is key. Those who’ve sworn off his work (for any number of legitimate reasons) won’t find much here to lure them back. But Allen’s stalwart fans, for whom the annual Allen feature has become an occasion for cringes rather than delights, will have a pretty good time.
Crisis in Six Scenes debuts Friday on Amazon Prime.