When most Woody Allen fans discuss his prime as a filmmaker, they tend to concentrate upon the Seventies. During that period he created broad farces like Bananas and Sleeper and more introspective and thoughtful fare such as Manhattan and Love and Death. Allen won his only directorial Oscar for 1977’s Annie Hall, which also grabbed the Best Picture honor.
On the other hand, Allen’s Eighties material garners much less praise. However, I think this is an unfortunate oversight, as his best material from the Eighties equals his top work from the prior decade. At least I think that’s what I believe. Honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve seen some of these movies, so I don’t know if my fond memories will remain following their screenings.
That issue will become more prominent in later reviews of flicks that I enjoyed such as Radio Days and The Purple Rose of Cairo. For the time being, I confront a movie that has nothing to lose: 1982’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. I haven’t watched this one in years, but I don’t retain fond memories of it. Frankly, I recall the flick as being a dud.
Much to my surprise, I changed my mind. Upon further review, I found Comedy to be an erratic and flawed piece, but it offered a lot more wit and spark than I’d remembered.
Comedy focuses on a weekend trip to the country by three couples. The event precedes the wedding of arrogant super-genius professor Leopold (Jose Ferrer) to much-younger hedonist Ariel (Mia Farrow). They come to the country retreat of his cousin Adrian (Mary Steenburgen) and her husband, Wall Street banker Andrew (Allen). In addition, Andrew invites his friend, a womanizing doctor named Maxwell (Tony Roberts), who entices a new nurse acquaintance named Dulcy (Julie Hagerty) to come with him.
Although all three couples already exist, the movie follows some serious changes of heart, even though two of the pairings have significant commitments to each other; only Maxwell and Dulcy are formally on the market. Nonetheless, we learn that Andrew once had a fling with Ariel, and he regrets not consummating that relationship years earlier. Maxwell also quickly falls for Ariel and begs her to leave Leopold. The latter tries to have a final premarital fling with Dulcy, while Adrian frets about her lack of ability to sexually fulfill Andrew. It’s a big mess of libidos that ultimately wraps up in a fairly neat little package.
The key to the relative success of Comedy stems from the fact that Allen keeps things pretty light. Despite the movie’s early 20th century period setting, he doesn’t attempt to create a historical program, and he doesn’t try to make things too pretentious either. Allen appears not to take things too seriously and he actually shows the ability to laugh at and with his characters, a facet absent from later works. Those include pompous roles like Leopold, but Allen’s much less likely to show insufferable “intellectuals” like that as the windbags they are in his subsequent films. Allen became so enamored of his little upper class intelligentsia that he lost touch with any other form of reality, which harmed his films.
Happily, Comedy stays much closer to the real world, and it benefits from this glib touch. In regard to Leopold, it also helps that a terrific performer like Ferrer took the role. Leopold’s the first character we see in Comedy, and he’s consistently fantastic as this overbearing and intolerant person. The assured cockiness with which he spouts every line makes the role work well, but Ferrer doesn’t allow Leopold to become too much of a caricature.
The rest of the cast does well also, especially due to the inclusion of Steenburgen, who helps ground the piece. She always seemed like a very warm and natural actress, and she ensures that the silliness doesn’t stray too far from reality. Allen displays his usual awkward charm and appears more relaxed and involved than normal.
Comedy packs in a reasonable number of funny bits, but it loses some points due to its generally cute and precious tone. Actually, “generally” is an overstatement, for most of the movie seems to lack these qualities. However, they appear frequently enough to cause a little disenchantment.
For one, Allen relies too much on some gimmicks, such as a flying machine invented by Andrew. He goes to this well to frequently; it seems silly the first time and doesn’t gain charm with each reintroduction. I also could have lived without the mystical aspects of the film’s final act. These lead to a very dopey ending that feels goofy and inane.
The film uses a very observational cinematographic style that also becomes a bit much at times. It’s one thing to use the camera in a detached, dispassionate way, but Allen set it up with some angles that took me out of the film. The “fly on the wall” style goes too far when we see characters via camera reflections or through semi-opaque walls. At that point, the technique feels forced and self-consciously arty and ruins the whole point of the style.
Nonetheless, I found A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy to offer a reasonably satisfying piece of Woody Allen filmmaking. The movie suffers from some excessively cutesy moments and won’t qualify as one of his best works, but as a whole, it has some funny material and it moves at an appropriately brisk and involving pace. Comedy shouldn’t be anyone’s introduction to Allen, but it should entertain and amuse his fans.
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. An erratic picture, Comedy veered from terrific visuals to heavily flawed sequences in a presentation that appeared decent but unspectacular as a whole.
Sharpness consistently looked quite good. A few interiors came across as slightly fuzzy, but these instances were rare. As a whole, the movie seemed to be nicely accurate and distinct. Moiré effects and jagged edges caused no problems, and I saw no signs of any edge enhancement.
Comedy went for a mild period look, which meant that the film featured a modest golden tone much of the time. The colors reflected this, and they remained fairly warm and natural nonetheless. The hues weren’t particularly bold or vibrant, but they seemed to be clear and acceptably lively. Black levels generally appeared acceptably deep and dense, and most low-light situations were reasonably clear and visible. Some interiors were moderately murky, but these concerns didn’t really involve the shadow.
One odd aspect of Comedy related from its use of “day for night” photography. As I’ve noted in many other reviews, DFN often renders low-light scenes impenetrable as it creates an artificial sense of nighttime. Allen used DFN liberally during Comedy, especially through the film’s last act. While the scenes showed no concerns related to excessive opacity, they displayed the opposite problem: the DFN shots were too bright. It was absurdly obvious that they were shot in the daytime, as the sun actually appeared in some scenes! The most awkward cut came from a shift from the bright DFN snippets to a dark and accurate shot of the moon. I mention the DFN in Comedy not because it was a flaw of the transfer, but instead due to the weird appearance it gave parts of the film. While these scenes remained very visible, their phoniness served to take me out of the story to a degree.
The main problem I had with the transfer of Comedy stemmed from the number of print flaws. The film displayed quite a few examples of speckles and grit, and grain seemed prominent during many interiors. Additional concerns appeared at times, such as some nicks, hairs and general debris, but the speckles and grit raised the most issues. A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy featured a lot of very attractive sequences, but the fairly high level of print flaws rendered the image less than terrific.
As with virtually all other Woody Allen films, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy offered only a monaural soundtrack. Comedy provided a modest but acceptable affair. Dialogue consistently appeared reasonably natural and distinct, and I detected no problems related to intelligibility or edginess. Effects offered a minor aspect of the mix, and they seemed slightly thin and inconsequential, but they appeared acceptably clear and accurate, with no issues related to distortion. The score sounded a little flat and failed to deliver much depth, but it maintained good clarity throughout the film. Overall, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy seemed satisfactory for its age and intentions.
Apparently Woody Allen doesn’t care for DVD extras, which is why none of the DVDs for his films include many. That is also the case for A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. All we find are some solid production notes within the four-page booklet and the movie’s theatrical trailer.
I went into A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy with low expectations, but I found the movie to offer a surprisingly warm and witty affair. It doesn’t stand as one of Woody Allen’s best works, but it seemed to provide an entertaining and enjoyable experience as a whole. The DVD featured generally good though erratic picture with bland but acceptable sound and very few extras. Ultimately, Woody Allen fans should be pleased with this decent but unspectacular release.
Note: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy can be purchased on its own or as part of the Woody Allen Collection 1982-1987. The latter also includes Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters and Radio Days. Unlike packages such as The Oliver Stone Collection or The New Stanley Kubrick Collection, 1982-1987 tosses in no exclusive extras, but its list price of $99.96 is about 17 percent off of the separate cost of all six movies. As such, it would be a nice bargain for anyone who wants all of the different films.