September
Reviewed in May 1999
Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Mia Farrow, Elaine Stritch, Dianne Wiest, Sam Waterston, Jack Warden, Denholm Elliott. Screenplay: Woody Allen.

The least fashionable thing you can possibly say about Woody Allen's films, even to fellow fans of his work, is that you enjoyed or appreciated September. Few of Allen's movies have taken such a unilateral drubbing from critics and audiences alike; put more clearly, critics were essentially the only audience September ever had. Other details corroborate one's impression that this was a troubled production, yielding a subpar effort. Mia Farrow, whose excellent memoir What Falls Away never impugns Allen's artistic talents, reports nonetheless that Allen filmed two or three revisions of almost every scene in September, so little was his confidence in the project, or his stewardship of it, or his actors' performances in it. Then, when he took all his "revised" footage to the editing room, he decided he hated everything, rewrote the entire script, recast almost every major part, and started from scratch, doubling his expected costs and coming in way behind schedule. It rarely bodes well when this one-per-year filmmaker suddenly offers up two films in the same twelve-month period. Look what happened when he tried to squeeze Shadows and Fog in early '92 before he jumped full throttle into Husbands and Wives. Yikes.

I have to say, though, that while it does rank among his more emotionally pallid pictures, and certain speeches and passages are rather inert, September is hardly an embarrassment; we'd have to wait over a decade, in the Jade Scorpion era, to see what real Allen stinkeroos looked and sounded like. September would almost surely have received some modest praise or half-hearted defenses had another director produced it. I have no idea why Allen gets bushwhacked by even his fan-base every time he tries to make a non-comedy. He is constantly accused of aping Bergman, as if no dimension of American existence or Hollywood moviemaking could possibly allow for any mutuality of themes between two of the world's most accomplished, and angst-ridden, directors. As is true of Allen's first dramatic film, Interiors, the Bergman film September most quickly brings to mind, with its multiple shots of characters in doorways and its periodic fadeouts, is Cries and Whispers. If Allen's film does not approach anything like the emotional tsunami of Bergman's film, it's not just because his technique is less striking and his storytelling more muddled, though these things are true. It's also fair to concede, surely, that he frames even quieter situations unfolding among less demonstrative characters than Bergman's.

September springs in equal parts from at least two other sources, and strikingly disparate ones at that: the rueful, bucolic dramas of Chekhov and the seamy private life of Lana Turner. The most prominent of September's six characters is Mia Farrow's Lane, an ugly duckling and pining wallflower in the Chekhovian tradition of Varya in The Cherry Orchard or Sonya in Uncle Vanya. Attempting to recover from a suicide attempt that occurred before the film begins, we now find Lane sequestered away for a period of rest in her Vermont cabin. She has invited her best friend Stephanie (Dianne Wiest) to stay with her, but she also has the company of a neighbor, Howard (A Room With a View's Denholm Elliott) and a tenant, Peter (Sam Waterston) to draw her out. Her relationships with these two men, however, could scarcely be more different. Howard loves her without any hope of reciprocation, while she withstands her own dead-end attraction to Peter, an aspiring writer.

The Lana Turner connection—specifically from the incident when Lana's teenage daughter shot her mother's gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato—appears in the guise of a similar, enigmatic incident that occurred among Farrow's Lane, her mother Diane (Elaine Stritch), and a lover from Diane's past. When mother and daughter start clawing this particular old wound, Allen writes as though we should be more interested in their history than we are. I didn't think the memory of violence added anything to September, especially given how much the movie had going for it in terms of subdued atmosphere, understated acting, and generous accommodation for the pregnant sounds of silence. All of Allen's dramas are derided for being "talky," when in fact their characters are infinitely more reticent than the protagonists of his joyously word-happy "comedies". September sustains that pattern, though I appreciated its occasional moments of sharp humor, as when Stritch criticizes Farrow for always dressing "like a Polish refugee."

Like the month that provides its title, September has an autumnal, academic patina that some viewers will find somnolent, others apt but clichéd, and still others quite inviting, eager to live patiently with an ensemble of adult characters and to think about what they say, and how they say it. No one in the cast contributes anything like a career performance, but you are unlikely to gather performers like Elaine Stritch, Jack Warden, and Dianne Wiest together and not generate any sparks. I wish people were more tolerant of dramas like September, which overreaches itself with some labored speeches on mortality and guilt but much more often rewards the attention and sensitivity of those viewers who willingly extend them. Some films sound to me like instruments, and September is a cello solo. You're bound to hear better if you visit the movies with any regularity, but just as certainly, you'll also encounter a lot worse. Woody Allen is nothing if not adventurous and willing to make mistakes. How nice for him that what often go down as his "mistakes" are as winsomely touching and polished as September. B–


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