Two months away from his 81st birthday, Woody Allen remains a thoughtful, clever filmmaker, even as his recent work has been undone by slack execution. It’s not that he doesn’t have ideas — about the role of fate in our lives, about whether our measly aspirations mean much in the end — but the seriousness of his themes can clash with his movies’ dashed-off tone. They’re sketches flecked with greatness you have to squint to see.
The writer-director’s strengths and limitations are all over “Crisis in Six Scenes,” his new Amazon television project. The six-part series, with each episode clocking in around 23 minutes, works as a laidback subversion of the must-see, binge-fever nature of most high-profile streaming programs.
There’s a kick to watching Allen, who’s long denigrated TV as a lesser art form, instill his storytelling with twists and turns so that each installment ends with a kinda-sorta cliffhanger. Both politically minded and very silly, the show is full of minor pleasures that butt up against clear indications that it could have easily been better if Allen had pushed himself.
“Crisis” opens with a very un-Allen piece of music — Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers,” as opposed to the jazz that usually scores his films — which introduces the fact we’re in the 1960s in rural New York as the counterculture is making headlines. Sidney (Allen) is a former ad writer who’s trying to become an author, settling on writing a sitcom to pay the bills.
His children grown, he lives alone with his marriage-counselor wife Kay (an utterly adorable Elaine May) when their house is broken into during the middle of the night. The intruder is Lennie (Miley Cyrus), the adult daughter of some old family friends, and she’s on the run after shooting her way out of prison as part of a radical terrorist organization.
Sidney wants her gone — he’s not keen on being arrested for harboring a fugitive — but Kay insists they can’t just turn their backs on the poor woman. Thus sets in motion a weeks-long odyssey in which Sidney and Lennie spar over her political views. (He thinks her activism goes too far, while she accuses him of being a bourgeois capitalist who pretends to be a liberal.) In the process, “Crisis” slowly becomes a cockeyed commentary on generational conflict and progressive politics that, neatly, doubles as an observation on how history has a nagging habit of repeating itself.
Allen ought to know: His first artistic flowering occurred as a stand-up in New York during the 1960s, and as a result “Crisis” feels like the work of a filmmaker who’s lived long enough to see how the turbulence of one era can echo in the turbulence of another. Without pushing too hard, the show draws clear parallels between the ’60s and the present, in which war, racial inequality and a gathering social unrest are again consuming the news. Allen doesn’t use those parallels to belittle either era — rather, he’s lamenting the good intentions of principled people who, no matter the time period, sometimes sabotage their own causes through foolish actions.
The longer Lennie inhabits Sidney’s universe, the more she infects it, to mild comedic effect. She turns Kay’s stodgy book club onto the works of Karl Marx. She catches the eye of Alan (John Magaro), a nerdy college friend of Sidney and Kay’s who’s engaged to a beautiful woman (Rachel Brosnahan) but becomes obsessed with this passionate radical. And as the authorities start to close in and Sidney’s anxiety escalates, “Crisis” evolves into an old-fashioned manic farce that’s reminiscent of Allen’s comic heroes, the Marx Brothers.
But the show’s intriguing thematic questions — What’s the best way to change the world? How do ones reconcile stability and living life to the fullest? — are often explored in the service of an overly jokey screenplay that lacks the sharpness of Allen’s best work. And the problem is also Allen, who has largely stopped acting in his own movies. As Sidney, he can be lovably doddering and still delivers the occasional quip with style. But more often, he’s the least compelling character on screen — especially in comparison to May, who at 84 remains a wry comic presence.
Cyrus makes for an amusing radical, but although one shouldn’t take her character too seriously — she’s an anarchist, but an anarchist in a breezy comedy — the actress remains a lightweight, diminishing the presumably important points Allen’s trying to make about the limits of revolution. Allen has seen political movements come and go and rise again — as well as observe a few generations rail against the worst elements of their government and each other.
“Crisis in Six Scenes” is a lighthearted show about a sobering reality, and it’s exciting to see Allen, who’s never been much of a political artist, commenting on America’s never-ending polarization. Too bad he falls back on musty gags to tell a story that couldn’t be more urgent.
“Crisis in Six Scenes” premieres Friday, Sept 30 on Amazon.