Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. That’s generally how it works in Hollywood, but not with “Flannel Pajamas” and “Annie Hall,” two flicks that follow a relationship from its inception to its death throes with intimate, dialogue-driven scenes that are sometimes almost too painful to watch. In both cases, the realism is driven by autobiography; director Jeff Lipsky’s low-budget meditation is based on his failed marriage, while Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning classic is rooted in his failed relationship with Diane Keaton (real name: Diane Hall; nickname: Annie). And both movies tell the story of a doomed romance between a Midwestern gentile and a New York Jew.
The difference is that Allen’s film also happens to be a laugh riot, whereas “Flannel Pajamas” is about as hilarious as Alvy Singer’s favorite flick, “The Sorrow and the Pity.” So, which film does a better job of making us relive the pain of our past breakups?
After renting this movie on DVD, my wife and I spent the first hour of the 124 minute runtime debating whether to turn it off and go to bed. We hated the two main characters — the obnoxious, controlling Stuart Sawyer (Justin Kirk) and the negative, needy Nicole Reilly (Julianne Nicholson) — and found many of the scenes documenting their budding romance more than a little contrived. The only saving grace (for one of us) was the fact that Julianne is naked for much of the first half of the movie.
But after the couple gets married and the cracks in their relationship begin to surface — and ultimately become wide enough to drive a truck through — the movie comes together in a special way. The oxytocin has worn off for the lovers, and now they see each other as plainly as we did in the first half of the film. And they’re as miserable as we were.
The Defending Champion
Critics generally hail “Manhattan” as Allen’s best work, but give me “Annie Hall” (followed by “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” which was featured in a split-decision Movie Smackdown with Allen’s own “Match Point“). The film is the story of the rise and fall of the relationship of Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie Hall (Keaton), and as with “Flannel Pajamas,” we can see the union’s fatal flaws — in particular, Alvy’s self-sabotaging neuroses — well before the characters do. And remarkably, despite a cavalcade of memorable one-liners (“I think what we have on our hands is a dead shark”), the dialogue between Alvy and Annie sounds very natural. The classic scene where the couple picks up live lobsters off the kitchen floor is like a great moment from a reality TV show.
“Flannel Pajamas” loses points right off the bat for its cutesy title, and falls miles behind with its less-than-compelling first hour. But after nearly losing us, “Flannel Pajamas” comes back strong. We watch Julianne get turned off by Stuart’s overbearing nature, begin talking badly about him to her friends, and appear less than supportive when Stuart’s brother dies. We watch Julianne’s friends and anti-Semitic mother chip away at the marriage whenever the opportunity arises. The dialogue in these scenes rings so true that you’re sure to have flashbacks to past marriages or relationships. And like Stuart at the end of the movie, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do things differently. Blame the oxytocin.
While “Flannel Pajamas” looks unblinkingly at a marriage’s disintegration based on its director’s personal experiences, “Annie Hall” goes further — offering us a look inside Allen’s restless, intensely creative, introspective, hilarious brain. Visually, Allen throws out all the stops — animation, kids speaking adult dialogue, Annie leaving her own body during sex, subtitles to show what people are really thinking when they talk, and on and on.
And when it comes to those true-to-life, painful-to-watch relationship moments, Allen delivers as well. One of the worst for me is when, after breaking up with Annie, Alvy tries to create the same magic with a new woman by inviting her over for lobster. Of course, he fails miserably. He then tries to win Annie back, but it’s too late.
Looks like we have a decision. Read on…
I’ve got to admire “Flannel Pajamas” for getting off the canvas — after playing rope-a-dope in the early rounds — to actually make a fight of it. But “Annie Hall” is the winner and still champion of the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, everyone gets existential” genre.