When the Writer’s Guild of America recently announced its picks for the 101 funniest film scripts of all time, Woody Allen’s 1977 classic Annie Hall nabbed the top spot. This was a controversial choice, to say the least. Not only was the WGA placing this Best Picture winner ahead of classics like Some Like It Hot and Dr. Strangelove, Tootsie and Blazing Saddles, they were also tacitly endorsing Allen himself, at time when the rest of Hollywood is eager to distance themselves from the filmmaker. Yet if you separate the art from the artist – an absolute must, when discussing Allen’s oeuvre – it’s hard to argue with the WGA’s decision. Like it or not, Annie Hall really is the greatest romantic comedy ever made.
The most influential comedy of its generation
Annie Hall‘s influence on the whole romantic comedy genre over the last 38 years is staggering, with 2009 romcom (500) Days of Summer only the latest in a long line of films to draw heavily from it. Indeed, Annie Hall essentially provided the template that most modern comedy-drama films follow, and (like them) it draws much of its power from characters and scenarios which are both timeless and true to life.
Take the scene where Allen’s Alvy (Allen) and Diane Keaton’s Annie (Diane Keaton) engage in their first awkward attempt at courtship. With this scene, Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman perfectly capture the stop-start nature of such a conversation – then go a step further by adding subtitles which reveal Alvy and Annie’s unspoken thoughts. This novel approach resonates far more than a simple scene of spoken dialogue, because we can all recall a time where we’ve engaged in banal chit-chat with someone on a first date, all while secretly doubting ourselves (and them!). This relatable quality makes the scene amusing, but also poignant.
Then there’s the scene where Alvy tries to recreate a special moment – a charmingly ill-fated attempt to cook lobster – he once shared with Annie with his new girlfriend. It’s funny, but it’s undercut with a sense of sadness. Again, we all know what it’s like to try relive the past only to fail just like Alvy does, and this shared connection means we ache along with him.
A surrealist masterpiece full of profound observations
That said, for all its real-life affectations, Annie Hall is often a decidedly surreal affair, with Allen regularly breaking the fourth wall. Easily the most insightful instance of this sees Alvy question people on the street about his relationship troubles, whereas the most delightful involves a daydream about confronting a pseudo-intellectual alongside real-life philosopher Marshall McLuhan (played by McLuhan himself, naturally!).
This pitch-perfect balance of melancholy and playfulness allows Annie Hall to effortlessly touch on issues as hefty as love, sex and identity, subjects that Allen makes profound observations about. Like how love can fade, or how that the sexual needs and desires of men will almost always conflict with those of women, and even how religion and culture are inextricably linked to the way we approach romance, for better or worse.
That Annie Hall ultimately reconciles its humorous and high-brow halves with an ending that is uplifting yet pragmatic about life and relationships – all without ringing false – is Allen’s real triumph.
It’s just plain funny
But when it comes down to it, the real reason why Annie Hall is the greatest romantic comedy of all time is because it’s just plain funny. The film marks a turning point in Allen’s career away from more traditional comedy fare towards something more nuanced, however, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t sneak in some out-and-out belly laughs, too.
Who could forget Alvy’s uncomfortable dinner with Annie’s gentile family (including racist matriarch Grammy Hall)? Or the infamous scene where he sneezes coke all over his and Annie’s friends? These moments (and others like them) are top shelf comedy that stand comfortably alongside anything by the likes of Wilder, Ramis or the Marx Brothers.
Greatest romantic comedy of all time? No kidding.