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 ended up nabbing the top spot on the list.
This was a slightly controversial choice, as it placed the Best Picture winner ahead of classics including Some Like It Hot and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, not to mention Tootsie and Blazing Saddles.
That said, while Annie Hall isn’t necessarily my favourite comedy of all time (that’d be #3 on the list, Groundhog Day), I’d still argue that it’s easily the greatest ever made.
Not only is the movie incredibly smart and disarmingly insightful, its influence on the whole genre over the last 38 years has been staggering, with 2009 rom-com (500) Days of Summer only the latest in a long line of films to draw heavily from it.
In fact, in a lot of ways, Annie Hall provided the template for the modern comedy-drama film, and it draws much of its power from characters and scenarios which are both timeless and true to life.
Take the scene between Alvy (Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) where they engage in their first awkward attempt at courtship.
With this scene, the film first captures the stop-start nature of this type of encounter, then goes a step further by adding subtitles which reveal the unrelated thoughts behind what is being said.
This resonates far more than a simple scene of spoken dialogue, as almost all of us will recall a time when we engaged in banal chit-chat with someone we hoped to date, secretly doubting ourselves (and them!) all the while.
It’s an amusing moment due to the sharply written subtitles, but also a poignant one owing to its grounding in a reality understood by the audience.
Equally affecting is a scene later in the piece, where Alvy tries to recreate with his new girlfriend a special moment he once shared with Annie.
Again, it’s funny in a slightly pathetic way, but it’s undercut with a sense of sadness. We can probably all relate to the misguided attempt to relive an old relationship through a new one and experienced similar failure to Alvy, and we ache along with him.
That said, for all its real-life affectations, Annie Hall is also quite a surrealist affair, filled with regular instances of the fourth wall being broken.
Of these, the most engaging occurs when Alvy begins questioning people on the street about his relationship troubles, whereas the most delightful takes place when he daydreams about confronting a pseudo-intellectual at the cinema with real life philosopher Marshall McLuhan (playing himself, naturally!).
This pitch-perfect balance of playfulness and melancholy is what allows the film to effortlessly touch on issues as hefty as love, sex (and sexuality) and identity, and Allen makes a lot profound observations about each of these.
Like how love can fade. And that the sexual needs and desires of men will almost always conflict with those of women. Even how religion and culture are inextricably linked to the way we approach romance, for better or worse.
That Annie Hall is then able to reconcile its humorous and heartbreaking facets into an ending that is uplifting and reaffirming about life and relationships – all without ringing false – is Allen’s real triumph.
But when it comes down to it, Annie Hall is also just plain funny.
The film may have marked a turning point in Allen’s career away from more traditional comedy fare towards something more nuanced, however that doesn’t mean he didn’t manage to work in some out-and-out belly laughs in amongst all the highbrow chuckles.
I mean, 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 can stand comfortably alongside anything by the likes of titans such as Wilder, Ramis or the Marx Brothers.
I suppose in the end that’s what makes Annie Hall so special: Allen doesn’t just feature a wide array of different emotional, thematic and tonal elements in his movie; he also executes them all perfectly in a deceptively simple display of filmmaking prowess.
Greatest comedy of all time? No kidding.