Monday, April 15, 2013

Film Review: Bananas (1971)

"Hey, you ever think about bein' an ant?"
On the DVD commentary for The Simpsons episode "Two Bad Neighbours", in which former President George H.W. Bush moves onto Evergreen Terrace and becomes the Mr. Wilson to Bart Simpson's Dennis the Menace, the executive producer for the episode, Josh Weinstein, mentions that one of the cast members (unnamed by Weinstein, though I've always assumed it was Harry Shearer) described the script as "some of the worst satire" he had ever read. Weinstein defended the episode by saying the point wasn't to criticise Bush's policies or his time as President, but to make fun of him personally, as a sort of continuation of the show's long-running feud with the Bush family. "Two Bad Neighbours" wasn't intended as satire, but a goofy little story.

The reason I mention this is that the first time I watched Woody Allen's Bananas, I had much the same reaction to it that the unnamed cast member had to "Two Bad Neighbours". I enjoyed the film, but I wrote it off as this oddly toothless satire of banana republics and Cold War paranoia, all wrapped up in the story of one man (Woody Allen) trying desperately to get laid. Upon rewatching it, I realised that to condemn the film for not being a pointed critique is like saying there aren't enough dick jokes in Terms of Endearment: technically correct, but it's a case of judging the film for being something it isn't trying to be. Allen didn't set out to completely and mercilessly skewer the subjects of his film, but to create an absurd, anarchic comedy that riffs on South American dictators in much the same way that Duck Soup, the film which Bananas most closely resembles, riffed on the political climate of Interbellum Europe. The fact that both films manage to get some smart gags in is incidental to the need to make the gags funny.

Allen plays Fielding Mellish, a typically Allen-esque character: over-educated, under-achieving, and obsessed with death and sex. In pursuit of the former, and almost unwitting pursuit of the former, he becomes involved with Nancy (Louise Lasser, Allen's second wife, from whom he had recently divorced), a young philosophy student who likes to talk about Kierkegaard between demonstrations. When she breaks up with Fielding because he's not politically active enough, he tries to prove his revolutionary credentials by visiting the Republic of San Marcos, whose government has been overthrown after the assassination of the elected president. (An event which is depicted in a pre-credits scene as a broadcast by The Wide Wide World of Sports, complete with cameo appearances by real-life sportscasters Howard Cossell and Don Murphy, both of whom are superb in short, deadpan turns.) Mellish soon finds himself inadvertently at the centre of the struggle, and is initially targeted for death by the government before being recruited by the rebels.

Bananas was Allen's third film as a director, and only his second using all original material (his debut, What's Up, Tiger Lily?, consisted of Allen and his cast dubbing comedic dialogue over footage from a Japanese James Bond rip-off) and like his previous film, Take the Money and Run, it feels like the work of someone who is learning as he goes along. There's a shaggy, ambling feel to the first two thirds, no doubt the result of Allen's extensive use of improvisation, which is very funny, but also feels like a string of funny bits strewn together with a threadbare plot. Those bits can be incredibly funny, such as Fielding's meal with the current leader (Carlos Montalbán) which involves a string quartet playing invisible instruments, some poisoned food and an argument over how to split the bill, but the film itself feels very distracted, albeit in a charming way.

As was the case on Take the Money and Run, and would later be on Annie Hall, it seems like the hero of the film was Allen's editor, Ralph Rosenblum, who not only convinced Allen to change the ending, but who manages to give some sort of cohesion to the proceedings without losing the jokes. It seems like a full third of the film consists of montages of Allen doing things, be they trying to woo Nancy, fleeing from the San Marcos troops, or training to be a guerilla. They all showcase Allen's gifts as a physical performer, albeit not quite as well as Sleeper or Love and Death, but also suggest that there was a wealth of material that Allen and Rosenblum felt they needed to cram in somehow, and this was the most artful way they found of salvaging the film. It helps that these sequences are accompanied by a boisterous, Latin-influenced score from Marvin Hamlisch, which is so self-consciously wacky it could probably have been released as a single piece simply entitled "Hijinks Ensue".

The messiness of the first two-thirds can be forgiven, though, thanks to the film's final twenty minutes, which are as gloriously silly as anything Allen ever did. Having failed upwards to the extent that he is now the dictator of San Marcos, Fielding travels back to America in order to try to convince people to pour money into the poor, rural country. Thanks to all the subversive activities he indulged in to impress Nancy, he is picked out as a potential threat by the government and put on trial.

What follows is a gleefully absurd sequence in which Fielding is forced to endure testimony - and song - from Miss America; sees the one piece of positive testimony given in his defence twisted into a negative one; and is even denounced by J. Edgar Hoover who, to throw off his many enemies, appears in court as a black woman. It's willfully, deliriously daft, but also probably the part of the film that makes the most sense as satire since, at its heart, the scene is about the rabid paranoia of Cold War America, treated as something which is truly deranged and farcical.

It also features probably the best piece of physical comedy in any of Allen's self-described early, funny ones when Fielding has to cross-examine himself. Whilst the idea of someone conducting both halves of an interview is funny in and of itself, Allen raises it to high art through the simple act of showing the frantic dashes he has to make to enter and leave the witness stand, instantly becoming perfectly composed, then starting the whole thing all over again. It's a masterstroke of comedic writing, timing and physicality that provides a great centrepiece to not just the sequence, but the entire film, to the extent that it has become almost as legendary as Allen himself.

In addition to all this, Allen shows a Mel Brooks-like tendency to wring a laugh out of as many shots as possible, inserting odd details like one of the jury drinking from a fishbowl to liven up otherwise perfunctory moments. The whole court room scene is probably the best realisation of Allen's attempt to be a one-man Marx Brothers, blending together verbal dexterity, physical agility and a professional gag writer's desire to cram as many jokes, and as many kinds of jokes, into a scene as possible. If comedy can be described as beautiful, that whole stretch of Bananas is a thing of beauty.

It's tempting to say that Bananas is only really worth watching for that stretch alone, seeing as it's the best part and the film is so diffuse that it can be enjoyed pretty much on its own, but that would do a disservice to an imperfect, thoroughly charming comedy. While it only really hits its stride in the last third, the rest is littered with great one-liners, some inspired scenes and a central performance by Allen which, whilst very familiar at this point, is thoroughly ingratiating. It's definitely scattered, and even at 82 minutes it somehow feels baggy, but it packs so many jokes into such a short space of time that it's never less than entertaining, and at its best is about as good as a comedy can be.