(0045X) Play It Again, Sam

Play It Again, SamMay 7, 1972 | 1 week at #1

Seen by Martin before? Yes

What did I expect? A stagy, early Woody Allen movie.

What did I get? I saw Play It Again, Sam when I was a teenager, and the experience did not leave me with a strong desire to see it another time. It seemed pretty stiff, and also just in purely visual terms it didn’t look very good, it was kind of hazy. I often wondered if my lack of enthusiasm was partly a product of my youthful status, a movie all about a man’s attempt to find a romantic partner not being likely to appeal to a young fan of the daffier Bananas or Love and Death. A second viewing establishes that my age was not the issue; it’s the same movie I remember.

Based on the successful Broadway play written by and starring Woody Allen (remarkably, Woody’s late-run replacement as the lead was none other than Bob Denver), Play It Again, Sam is about Allan, a film critic who, having recently been left by his wife, trepidatiously reenters the dating scene. Conscious of his lack of traditional masculinity and far too immersed in classic cinema, Allan engages in frequent pep talks with Humphrey Bogart’s Rick from Casablanca, who consistently advises him to man up and kiss the dame and that sort of thing. It’s not a bad device to explore the fundamental nature of nebbishness in a world dominated by swingers, but the movie’s strengths and weaknesses all go counter to expectation.

You would think that a play with such a device and a handful of other fanciful imagined interludes (at least in the movie) would positively be aching for adaptation to the movie form. The Bogie dialogues constitute the movie’s rationale, but the scenes with Bogart aren’t very good, and the movie would probably be better off without them. The scenes without this device, most of which include Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts as Allan’s best friends, a married couple — there are many of these Bogart-free scenes — work well enough and seem like a slightly different, more conventional and realistic movie. Also, it’s not persuasive that Allan’s doubts about himself would find expression in this manner; it never stops seeming like a writerly conceit.

My conclusions about Play It Again, Sam are as follows: (1) Allan makes for an unusually annoying protagonist, yet Woody’s peculiar charm does make him more bearable. Woody spends most of the movie whining about what an incompetent lover he is, and in order emphasize this point, we see a few unfunny scenes about what a klutz he is, the most egregious example being when he destroys his bathroom because he is unable to manipulate a portable hairdryer (really?). (2) The movie works much better if you regard it as a movie about Linda, Keaton’s character; she’s neurotic too but more interesting and relatable, although at the very end the script sells her out. (3) Allen’s roots as a gag writer show too much, and it’s evident that the transition from the zany Bananas to the more acutely observed Annie Hall was a good deal rockier than it might seem in hindsight. (4) Herbert Ross was a pretty bad director. I wouldn’t be surprised if the experience made Woody permanently leery of putting his words in the hands of other directors.

It’s always pleasurable to watch Woody Allen act, and he was responsible for the script, which has a good number of bright spots while being far from his best work. The Bogart thing may have been more interesting then than now, and the movie feels slight when it’s not actively off-key.

What here smacks of 1972?  Tony Roberts’ practice of constantly calling his office to recite a string of telephone numbers corresponding to the various locations he expects to be. And more generally, the pre-digital era of dating.

IMDB score: 7.6

My score: 5

Director: Herbert Ross

Writer: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Jerry Lacy, Susan Anspach, Jennifer Salt, Joy Bang

IMDB synopsis: A mild mannered film critic is dumped by his wife and his ego is crushed. His hero persona is the tough guy played by Humphrey Bogart in many of his movies and the apparition of Bogart begins showing up to give him advice. With the encouragement of his two married friends, he actually tries dating again, with less than satisfactory results, until he relaxes.

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2 thoughts on “(0045X) Play It Again, Sam

  1. Paula says:

    I was a huge fan of Allen’s movies during the 1970’s, but totally agree with you on this one. I think it’s the weakest of all his work during that decade. His start as a gag writer is better served in “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex”.

    There’s something distasteful about his character in this movie. Maybe it’s the old trope of the guy who doesn’t seem to have much to offer but still thinks he’s owed the most gorgeous babe in the room just because, you know, he’s a guy. I don’t remember that many details, but do remember not liking this movie at all.

    However – it does have one of my favorite movie lines. It’s said by Allen to one of his dates in an attempt to sound sophisticated “I like rain. It washes memories off the sidewalks of life”. Other than that one line, which I still think is hilarious, the movie was a waste of time.

    Annie Hall, on the other hand…

    • Your reply gives me a chance to amplify on some points I decided not to get into in the review (the omnibus wrapup paragraph is a dead giveaway). I may have been too hard on Ross. I hated Owl/Pussycat and he clearly did not do a good job here, but looking at his resume, he’s done harmless movies I enjoyed (cf. Boys on the Side and Max Dugan Returns).

      I can’t quite believe that IMDB people give this a 7.6, I can’t find anyone among my friends who’s enthusiastic about it. I guess the combination of old-school Woody and the Bogie gimmick is enough to make people like it. For me it’s not enough.

      You’re onto something about male entitlement, but the character is so hard on himself throughout that I almost want to give him a pass — it’s like his getting the dame at the end is just a product of narrative requirements. In more recent romcoms, it takes the form of “she loves him … because he’s the protagonist” (and vice versa). If anything this movie does at least try to explain her attraction better than a lot of contemporary movies (there’s a couple of scenes involving a skunk statuette Allan bestows on Linda, and Tony Roberts is his usual dickish self).

      On Allan being an annoying protagonist — you would not be able to pass this guy off as a romcom hero at any point after about 1985, he’s just too insistently *vocal* about his shortcomings. Today the guy would find refuge in obliviousness, the Seth Rogen character in Knocked Up is a useful counterpoint. Rogen’s a loser in that movie, and kind of knows it, but he gamely bluffs through as best he can, as would most anybody. It’s interesting how Woody’s constant disclaimers as to what he cannot do (drink alcohol, sit in a car, etc.) functioned then and function now as an embrace of weakness — tons of people identify with Woody, and those self-effacing remarks are a big part of the reason.

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