Jesse Eisenberg stars at the latest neurotic Woody Allen surrogate in "To Rome With Love." Let's see how he rates SLIDE SHOW
Let’s start off by dispelling a widely held misconception. It’s simply not true that Woody Allen, in the years since he stopped playing the romantic leading man in his own movies, has only cast tall, good-looking, Anglo-Nordic gentile types in the “Woody Allen” roles. OK, it’s about 60 to 70 percent true, depending on how you count Will Ferrell, star of the supremely forgettable “Melinda and Melinda,” who is of Irish ancestry and not necessarily considered among the most smoldering men in show business.
Daringly, Allen has employed two actual Jewish actors — Larry David in “Whatever Works” and Jesse Eisenberg in the brand-new “To Rome With Love” — to play his self-involved, loquacious and neurotic (yet fatally irresistible to women) protagonists. And then there’s the intriguing case of Jason Biggs, the one-time star of “American Pie,” who headlined Allen’s 2003 flop “Anything Else” and has specialized in playing Jewish characters his entire career. (Apparently even Woody did not realize that Biggs is actually a Catholic with Italian roots.)
And while Allen is passionately committed to a jokey, old-school and largely stereotypical view of gender roles, he veered into accidental avant-garde feminist territory with the 2006 “Scoop,” featuring a bespectacled Scarlett Johansson investigating murders and canoodling with a villainous Hugh Jackman. One could argue, of course, that Johansson’s awkward journalism student is not a classic Woody surrogate and that “Scoop” is an effort to make a different kind of movie altogether; and one could also argue that I should have crawled further out on a limb and included Rebecca Hall from “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” on this list. (That film, one of Allen’s weirdest, darkest and funniest, sort of defeated me: Is Hall the main character? Is Johansson? It isn’t Penélope Cruz or Javier Bardem, who are basically human sex toys.)
What we can say clearly, I think, is that about a decade ago, Allen realized conclusively that he could no longer use his own screen persona as the canvas for his romantic and aesthetic fantasies. He’d experimented with other actors in leading roles before, casting John Cusack in the 1994 “Bullets Over Broadway” and Kenneth Branagh in the 1998 “Celebrity.” But the turning point seems to have been the alarmingly autobiographical “Hollywood Ending” of 2002, in which the 67-year-old Allen played a temporarily blind movie director who makes a film that is rejected by Americans but embraced by the French, along the way winning back his much younger ex-wife (Téa Leoni) from a better-looking guy.
“Hollywood Ending” was a lazy and sloppy film that failed at the box office and, worse yet, suggested that Allen was fatally out of touch with his own image and abilities. Since then, he has retreated to the director’s chair, occasionally playing comic sidekick roles although he claims not to enjoy them. At his Cannes press conference for “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” Allen explained: “It’s no fun to play the guy who doesn’t get the girl. So I’m just over in the corner, directing the film. ‘See that old guy over there? He’s the director!’ I’d rather be the guy who sits opposite the girl in the restaurant and lies to her. If I can’t find a way to get the girl, I won’t do it at all.”
But I come to praise Woody Allen, not to bury him, honestly. Perhaps the most amazing consequence of Allen’s indefatigable persistence is that he has renewed himself at senior-citizen age, making by far the biggest hit of his long career (“Midnight in Paris,” which also garnered his third screenwriting Oscar), and working with a hand-picked roster of international stars. If “To Rome With Love” lacks the same box-office potential, it’s a frothy, slightly rueful tripartite farce set in the Eternal City, which brings together Eisenberg, Cruz, Roberto Benigni, Alec Baldwin and Ellen Page. So for this catalog of Woody Allen stand-ins, we’ll start there and move backward into the past, in the tradition of American cinema’s greatest nostalgic.
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Two-for-one for Everyone — West Wind Solano Twin Drive-In, Concord, Calif. This family-friendly attraction with several spots across the U.S. (including California, Nevada and Arizona) prides itself on offering first-run double features (save for premiere events) on the cheap — which is quite the deal, considering their 65-foot screens are among the biggest in the biz. And if you have great car speakers, even better: squawk boxes of old have been replaced with Dolby quality audio piped through your car’s FM stereo.
For the Four-legged Friendly — Warwick Drive-In, Warwick, N.Y. Northeast city slickers looking for a place to watch their favorite movie stars under the stars need only veer six miles east of Vernon, N.J. What began as a family affair in 1950 has since become a seasonal institution offering rural and urban (and pet!) audiences two movies for the price of one on any of its three giant screens.
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See Stars Collide — Ford-Wyoming Drive-In, Dearborn, Mich. Open year-round (unlike many of its surviving contemporaries), this five-screen staple of the Midwest known as the “largest drive-in in the world” plays host for up to 3,000 cars on any given night. And if the double-feature doesn’t hold your attention, relax; you’ve got the best (car)seat in the house for the occasional overhead meteor shower.
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A Hole (Lot of Fun) in One — Wellfleet Drive-In, Wellfleet, Mass.Built in 1957 and still offering original mono sound boxes for those looking for an authentic experience (or not, as FM stereo is available as well), the summer-exclusive theater hosts double features of first-runs on its giant 100’ x 44’ screen. Come for the movies, stay for the mini-golf and flea market (on select days).
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Go Big or Drive Home — Bengies Drive-In, Baltimore, Md. The only thing bigger than Bengies’ prolific history (57 years and going) is its main attraction — boasting the biggest theater screen in the U.S. at 6,240 square feet. That’s 52’ x 120’ of pure anamorphic presentation. Complementing its time capsule of a snack bar (unchanged since ’56), previews old and new occupy the venue’s old-timey intermissions between features.
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Proof That Film is Forever — Shankweilers, Orefield, Pa. While we’re on superlative street, consider stopping at this roadside treasure: America’s oldest drive-in. Operating since 1934, it may not have the frills and pony rides of nearby Becky’s Drive-In, but it’s defied hurricanes and the wear and tear of time. Worth the one-hour drive from Philly.
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The Gritty Hollywood Reboot — Corral Drive-In, Guymon, Okla. Like a slasher movie menace that died (several times) in the ’80s only to be rebooted years after, the long-vacant Corral Drive-In was resurrected and restored in 2009, providing big entertainment at a nominal fee. And if the $6 adult admission doesn’t make you feel like a kid again, the venue’s inflatable bouncers most definitely will.
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Hop the Healthy Highway — Delsea Drive-In, Vineland, N.J. Less than an hour’s trip from Atlantic City, New Jersey’s only drive-in offers the best of both worlds — old school aesthetic outfitted with modern tech and healthier food choices to boot. Open seasonally, with first features beginning around dusk.
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Bring Your Backyard to the Big Screen — Starlight Six Drive-In, Atlanta, Ga. As much a backdoor barbecue as it is a night out at the movies, this six-screen Atlanta drive-in encourages what most in the theater biz forbid: bringing your own food and grilling it. Those looking to add a hip twist of the theatrical to their Labor Day getaway need only stock the cooler and pack some brats or burgers for the Starlight’s annual “Drive-Invasion,” which features a hot-rod show, live music, and B-movies galore.
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And really, what better way is there to cruise the nostalgia highway of old Hollywood than in a MINI Roadster? Allowing all the headroom one needs to see the stars on the screen and those directly above, the 2013 convertible goes the distance where it counts — on the road (obviously), not to mention the discerning driver’s wallet. Never mind that its fun-size frame also makes motoring in and out of tight traffic all the more enjoyable (or parking in even tighter spots for cozy romantics all the more convenient).
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