Shadows and Fog (1992)

It is Woody Allen's great misfortune that his new movie, Shadows and Fog, was released after Steven Soderbergh's Kafka. The two movies share similarities in setting (a European city in the 1920s), subject matter (murder mystery), visual style (black and white cinematography), and subtext (powerless individuals trapped in big, impersonal organizations). And both movies pay tribute to Expressionist filmmaking of the 1920s, specifically to the work of Fritz Lang, the legendary German director who emigrated to Hollywood in 1935.   

 However, the differences between Allen's and Soderbergh's movies are just as striking. Though it is not witty or funny, Shadows and Fog attempts to be a comedy; Kafka is a more serious endeavor. Soderbergh at least shot his movie on location, in Prague. The artifice of Shadows and Fog, which was entirely shot on the studio lot, is all too apparent–despite Santo Loquasto's imaginative design. Finally, Kafka is the second film of a director who is still in his 20s. Shadows and Fog, in contrast, comes from a mature artist, arguably one of our most important filmmakers, who is supposed to be at the peak of his career.   
 
In his new movie, Allen cast himself as Max Kleinman, a petit bureaucrat. Kleinman is awakened one night by vigilantes who tell him that a homicidal maniac on the loose is going to strike again. Recruited to a grand "plan" to capture the killer, neither he nor anybody else seem to know exactly what he is supposed to do. Wandering in the streets of an unnamed city, Kleinman meets all kinds of strange characters (a weird doctor, a magician). Prominent among them is Irmy (Mia Farrow), a circus sword swallower, who has run away from her boyfriend-clown (John Malkovich), after catching him flirting with the trapeze artist (Madonna). Unfortunately, as soon as the movie begins to build suspense, Kleinman resorts to self-reflexivity, muttering the usual Allenisms about death, atheism, paranoia, and, of course, romantic love.
 
Shadows and Fog boasts a high-powered cast–the movie displays a dizzying parade of notable performers. However, all the actors are way overqualified to play their vastly underwritten parts. One can perhaps be more tolerant when Madonna is cast as a slut, though even she comes across as more vulgar than is necessary. But it is inexcusable to have two of America's most accomplished actresses, Jodie Foster and Kathy Bates, both recent Oscar winners, playing the tiny roles of cynical hookers.   
 
Astonishingly, Shadows and Fog has misogynistic overtones as well. Allen's gallery of women is composed of three types: shrewd prostitutes (Bates, Foster, and Lily Tomlin), embittered spinsters (Julie Kavner), and whiny, victimized women (Farrow), who find momentary liberation through sex, but whose main wish is to settle down to domesticity and procreate. As if this patronizing view of women is not enough, Kleinman spots his boss peeping on a woman undressing by her window.
The whole movie, which could be described as "Lost in the Fog," is a pastiche of ideas and images borrowed from other works. Allen has lifted visual segments from Nosferatu, Lang's movies, and other works of the l920s. And his intellectual ideas stem from Kafka, Beckett, and Chekhov (Allen's favorite writer). For the soundtrack, Allen uses the music of Kurt Weill, but even this wonderful score cannot pump some life or energy into his movie. The film's running time is a mere 86 minutes, but Allen barely has material for 26 minute. 
 
Allen's last artistic success was the nostalgic, but exhilarating and inventive, Radio Days, in l987. Whenever he pays homage to his favorite filmmakers, he ends up making stale, rigid movies. In Interiors and Another Woman, he paid tribute to Ingmar Bergman; in Stardust Memories to Fellini. Allen has been working at a breakneck pace, directing one movie a year. But this self-imposed discipline has resulted in movies that were either thin (like Shadows and Fog, and before it, the slightly whimsical Alice), or ponderous and portentous (September, Another Woman). 
 
When you sit in a movie house, waiting for the next famous star to turn up or trying to guess which element of the story comes from which movie, you know that what's on the screen is not engaging.          Shadows and Fog, a movie drained of any spark or verve, is not only a failure, it shows a director at a complete loss. The title of the movie turns out to be ironic–it is Allen himself, not the character he plays, who is in the fog. Allen has become an insular director, trapped in his own world. He has estranged himself from his old fans, and has failed to recruit new audiences.
 
Allen is one of the few directors who have final cut and the power to get his movies made the way he envisions them; he even exerts control over the ads used for his films. It is unforgivable to possess such power and waste it on a futile and listless enterprise like Shadows and Fog.