The latest word on Woody Allen is that he's losing it. Insulated from the rhythms of contemporary life, which gave his work a trendy appeal during the heyday of Annie Hall and Manhattan, Allen has become less funny and more thoughtful. To his detractors, it's a bum trade-off. They're likely to be particularly pissy about Shadows and Fog, a comic lament that is purposefully and defiantly out of step. Shot in black and white in a New York studio meant to represent a middle-European city during the Twenties, the $19 million film (Allen's most expensive ever) has the German-expressionist look of Fritz Lang's M, the music of Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera and the circus background of a Fellini film. Mix in a cast of American stars ranging from Jodie Foster to Madonna, and the result is a messy culture clash that's easy to dismiss at first glance.
Writer-director Allen stars as Max Kleinman, a Kafkaesque clerk roused from his sleep to help a band of vigilantes find a serial strangler who's roaming the gaslit, cobblestone streets. At first, Klein-man seems the typical Allen schlemiel. "I have the strength of one small boy — with polio," he tells the thugs. And when Klein-man meets Irmy (Mia Farrow), a sword swallower who's left her clown boyfriend (John Malkovich) for messing with the strongman's wife (Madonna), the stage is set for the usual Allen-Farrow banter. Irmy is riddled with guilt; she took money for sleeping with a lovesick student, sweetly played by John Cu-sack, who mistook her for a whore. In one incisively funny bit, Irmy asks Klein-man to recover half the money, which she has donated to the Catholic church.
This is familiar Allen territory. So is a long scene in a brothel, in which hookers played by Foster, Lily Tomlin and Kathy Bates talk about sex and sisterhood while Carlo Di Palma's camera circles them Hannah and Her Sisters-style. Then Donald Pleasance shows up as a mad scientist, and the humor turns darker. The shadows are real, and in a city plagued by bullying bureaucrats and the threat of imminent death, Allen mirrors the greed-and-disease-afflicted world of today.
Will viewers go along with Allen's experiment? The decision to open the movie in France six weeks before its U.S. premiere suggests Allen has more faith in European audiences than in the junk-movie junkies back home. But before we throw Woody to the French along with Jerry Lewis, let's at least credit his ambition. The maddeningly unfocused Shadows and Fog is a noble misfire. Allen has sketched the outline for a great movie without mustering the inspiration to make it come alive the way he did with Crimes and Misdemeanors. Many of the actors, especially Madonna, Kate Nelligan and Fred Gwynne, are on so briefly they barely register. There's too little satire and too much best-of-Woody backpedaling. But the compassionate eloquence of the film is undeniable. Near the end, Klein-man almost signs on as apprentice to a magician (Kenneth Mars), but he fears he's not up to the job. Allen knows that magic comes hard in times of crisis. He also knows that it's the fight that counts.