In the clutches of comedy's fascinating rhythm

Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips reviews Woody Allen's latest, "Blue Jasmine." (Posted on: August 1, 2013)

We all come from somewhere.

Like Neil Simon, like Mel Brooks, like a lot of other comedy writers who fashioned material for Sid Caesar and other kings and queens of 1950s television, Woody Allen wrote for Caesar so that others might praise him, and his punchlines. Short and sweet, bam-bam-bam. The jokes kept coming. They had to. That was the job.

And once you've written for Caesar, trace elements of the old sketch-comic rhythms turn up in very different material, decades later.

Watching or, rather, listening to Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" it struck me how difficult it must be for a writer to adjust the internal pacing of his work to suit a seriocomic realm, where the jokes aren't (or shouldn't be) underlined. In this film, opening in Chicago Friday, Allen attempts a semi-serious variation on an oft-parodied theatrical and cinematic classic: Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." There are times in the film, reviewed today in this section, when Allen pulls clever and easy-breathing variations on his inspiration. And there are times when he doesn't seem entirely sure when to go for the joke, and when not to, and how to leave Williams out of the equation.

Allen's writing career goes back more than a half-century; he contributed material to "The Colgate Comedy Hour" with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in 1950. Later, in the early 1960s, just after Caesar's television heyday, he wrote for Caesar and company on various TV projects.

The Caesar writing teams throughout the '50s and early '60s were legendarily, competitively, massively funny. For "Your Show of Shows" (1950-54), the wiseacres extraordinaire included Brooks, Danny Simon and Danny's brother, Neil. For "Caesar's Hour," which followed "Your Show of Shows," the staff roster featured, among others, the Simons, Brooks and Larry Gelbart.

When you learn to write with a swift comic punch and extreme efficiency, it's a lesson that sticks. This is why Neil Simon's work may go in and out of favor, but it will never die. He defined, at his best, to borrow a phrase from jazz great Stan Kenton, artistry in rhythm. Take this exchange from Simon's 1961 play "Come Blow Your Horn," filmed two years later. A father is bawling out his son for being a party boy instead of a respectable heir to the family business. "You take off legal holidays, Jewish holidays, Catholic holidays...last year you took off Halloween," the father scolds.

"I was sick," the son replies.

"When you came back to work you were sick. When you were sick you were dancing."

You can't quite hear the atypical payoff coming with that one, which is why it's good.

As with Simon, much of Allen's writing career has centered on finding the right sort of funny at any given narrative moment. As with Simon, even when he's writing serious material for a highly charged encounter between two or more characters, the rhythm tends to retain the old bam-pow of the Sid Caesar days.

Allen is a serious thinker, or can be, and he's capable of ambiguous and complex dramatic flourishes. Take the ending of "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," for example, which sends its main characters, played by Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall, down an airport escalator in a reflective mood, romantically mixed up, a little wiser perhaps. That's a lightweight film with a capper that sticks. In "Blue Jasmine" Andrew Dice Clay gets the next-to-last word on screen, as a man whose good fortune has been squandered by others. It's a strong, quiet moment, worthy of the writer of "Crimes and Misdemeanors." Here Allen doesn't go for the joke. And, just as importantly, the rhythm of the dialogue doesn't lead us to expect a joke that never arrives.

Throughout their respective careers, Allen (as active as ever) and Simon have slayed audiences. Then, on stage and on screen, they tried a more seasoned and mellow brand of comedy, investing in character, exploring the shadows. This is what major writers do; they grow. When it works, the results are gratifying. When it half-works, as in the case of "Blue Jasmine," it's a reminder of how hard it can be for even exceptional craftsmen to modulate their act, once the act, the comic rhythm, is ingrained in their comic souls.

Movies on the radio: Michael joins "Filmspotting" co-hosts Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen 11 p.m. Friday and midnight Saturday on WBEZ-FM (91.5). The widescreen VistaVision podcast edition can be heard on filmspotting.net.

mjphillips@tribune.com

@phillipstribune

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