Shadows and Fog
Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, John Malkovich, John Cusack, Kenneth Mars, Michael Kirby, Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, Donald Pleasance, David Ogden Stiers, Wallace Shawn, Philip Bosco, Madonna, Julie Kavner, Madonna, Kate Nelligan, Charles Cragin, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Kurtwood Smith, Camille Saviola, Fred Gwynne. Screenplay: Woody Allen.

Let's keep this simple and precise. There are three ways to trick yourself, or to get tricked, into watching Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog—which, before any mistake may be made, is a listless workshop for a picture, not a cohesive picture in itself, and therefore less entertaining or enlightening than anything I've ever seen His Neurotic-ness throw together. The first and most tempting reason to watch Shadows and Fog is the sheer volume and richness of its cast, a group that includes such unsinkables as Lily Tomlin, Kate Nelligan, Philip Bosco, and Wallace Shawn, not to mention eye-catching names like Madonna, Jodie Foster, and John Cusack.

Almost none of their characters have more than three scenes, as it happens, so discrediting the majestic marquee as to warrant charages of false advertising. Madonna may not even remember being in this film, her participation is so brief, and poor Nelligan has to deliver her entire single scene in a long shot that barely makes her recognizable. So there's that caveat: don't expect to rent Shadows and Fog and spend a jolly evening in stargazing.

Reason #2 why Shadows and Fog may seem like an inspired choice for a Blockbuster night is the visual idiom of the movie, which was frequently the element singled out by disappointed critics as the only discernible reason for this film to have been made. As the title suggests, Allen has conceptualized a midnight-alley atmosphere that yearns for echoes of M or The Third Man, a mood underscored by a major plot involving a strangler on the loose in a nameless city dislocated from any tell-tale regional or chronological identifications. Cinematographer Carlo di Palma, with whom Allen works frequently but rarely in so stylized a setting, has a good time with the billowing mists and loooonnng shadows that forever reveal and conceal different permutations of students, vigilantes, prostitutes, and (ahem) circus performers that are all on their guard against the anonymous murderer.

I have long contended, however, that Allen is not always disciplined enough to amass a whole movie's worth of engaging material when he believes he has discovered one sure-fire idea. In the same way that Mighty Aphrodite hung drably on the tentpole of Mira Sorvino's inspired central performance—though her responsibility to hold up the whole film was the only sense in which she was a "supporting" actress—Shadows and Fog's visual concept is thin meat indeed beneath all the flavorless garnish Woody provides. Even a Kafkaesque subplot in which his character is awakened to participate in street-patrolling activities that have not been described to him, or a Hitchcockian one in which he is wrongly implicated for Pleasance's murder, come to absolutely nothing. Farrow's part is written so absent-mindedly that she reunites with unfaithful lover Malkovich (as irritatingly self-conscious as ever) and attempts to persuade Woody to leave with her when the circus leaves town. And that doesn't even mention her dalliance with the Cusack character; she amasses paramours in this picture even more quickly than she adopted children in real life.

Finally, Shadows and Fog, released in 1992, falls on the timeline of Allen's career during a period when several winning or even bracing projects—the fanciful Alice (1990), the razor-sharp Husbands and Wives (1992), and the terrifically interesting Another Woman (1988)—were unfairly neglected for reasons ranging from generic eccentricity to tabloid-powered overexposure. Shadows and Fog, however, proves to be one Allen project that deserved the cold snubbing it received from critics and audiences. Allen's films are never wholly without ideas, and there is something interesting attempting to get out here about persecution complexes and blocked creativity, but the film ends up embodying those concepts more than really exploring them. Rent Husbands and Wives, or if you need to see Woody in duochrome, rent Manhattan. All the cold shoulders this picture deserves are still nowhere near as cold as this remote, lazy effort. D+

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