Deconstructing Woody

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Is comedy a young man's game, like skateboarding or sex? Writing jokes, creating droll characters--these take ambition, ingenuity and energy, and after decades of devotion to this voracious muse, a fellow can get pooped. He still knows the rhythms (ba-da-dum or ba-da-bing) but has run out of witty variations. He's vamping, working from the Catskills version of muscle memory. His obsession is just a job; he's confecting comedy not from inspiration but from habit.

That seems the case with Woody Allen, 66, whose Hollywood Ending, his 32nd film as writer-director, is now on display. So is a documentary, Woody Allen: A Life in Film, handsomely produced by TIME contributor Richard Schickel and airing May 18 on Turner Classic Movies, along with an 18-film retrospective. Thus Woodyphiles and Woodyphobes alike have the chance not only to hear the auteur discuss his body of work but also to measure the early movies against the more recent stuff. Alas, it's no contest. Youth wins again.

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In his new film Woody plays Val Waxman, a once hot director, now out of fashion, who gets the chance to direct a big-budget movie thanks to the urging of his ex-wife, a studio executive (Tea Leoni in an appealing, intelligent performance). Just before shooting starts, Val gets a case of psychosomatic blindness and must keep his infirmity from the cast and crew. This could be funny if Allen had either the gags to sustain it or the gift of physical comedy to embody it. He has neither, and the film plays like an endless prank call to an industry that passed him by.

In Ending, most of the men dwell in a vaudeville Valhalla (the three main males are named Val, Hal and Al), while the women are the familiar Woody types, exasperated wife and perky bimbo--all played by actresses who weren't born when Allen wrote and starred in his first movie, What's New Pussycat. Allen's need to play cute with women a generation younger used to seem predatory. Now, with him fully looking his age, it's just pathetic.

His view of women remains puerile: hostility toward mature ones (hate the mother), letch for young ones (love the daughter). At least in Deconstructing Harry he was forthrightly misogynist. But he never seems more condescending to women than when he's ostensibly loving them, as with Leoni. That may be why some of his best jokes idealize masturbation. In Annie Hall he called it "sex with someone you love." He has another good line here: "The nicest thing about masturbation is after. The cuddling time."

Movie critics like to cuddle too; they want their favorite filmmakers to keep making favored films. And Allen has had skeins of terrific movies: Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters and Radio Days in the mid-'80s and the lesser, still pleasing run of Husbands and Wives, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite in the mid-'90s. So, as we near the mid-'00s, can we hope for another blossoming? It would be nice if the Woodman had one more return to top form--an invigorating dose of comic Viagra.