As of this writing, I have not yet seen "Melinda and Melinda," so I can't say which camp I will join. At least since "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989), I have found myself vacillating between encouragement and disappointment, settling more often, and more easily, into the latter. Like others in the dogged, dwindling corps of Woody Allen completists, I occasionally ask myself if the eternally renewed, all-too-frequently dashed hope that each new movie brings is worth all the angst. He has let us down before, and each new effort revives the anxiety that it will happen again.
But what if this is not an anxiety at all - not a well-founded fear that an admired artist has lost his touch - but rather an expectation? While it's hard to deny that Mr. Allen's output has been uneven of late, his failures and near-misses seem to provoke a disproportionate - even a neurotic - reaction precisely among those most disposed to admiration. What if we - and by "we" I mean the legions (or at least dozens) of young (or at least gracefully middle-aged) intellectuals (or at least newspaper readers) with battered used-bookstore copies of "Getting Even" and "Without Feathers" at their bedside and long passages of dialogue from "Sleeper" and "Love and Death" in their heads - go to the new Woody Allen movie because we want to feel let down, abandoned, betrayed? We are all aware that the man has problems of his own, but what if the dissatisfaction we feel with his work is, at bottom, our problem?
Consider the history. Mr. Allen, who will turn 70 at the end of this year, has been writing, directing and starring in movies for about 35 years. In 1978, after having made six comedies in less than a decade - starting with "Take the Money and Run" in 1969 and culminating in the Oscar-winning "Annie Hall" in 1977 - he released "Interiors," an abstract, ambitious psychological drama that, because it refused to provoke any laughter, provoked quite a bit of grumbling instead. And the disapproving, slightly scandalized response to that movie set the tone for much complaining to follow. Not long after, in "Stardust Memories," Mr. Allen took note of such discontent, portraying a tormented filmmaker at odds with his vulgar, uncomprehending audience, who either read too much into his pictures ("What do you think the Rolls-Royce symbolized?" "I think it symbolized his car") or don't want to be bothered to think about them at all. The line from "Stardust Memories" that everyone remembers is uttered by a loud-mouthed, vulgar movie patron who proclaims her preference for the hero's earlier movies, "the funny ones."
That judgment, meant as a rebuke to a public that wants its entertainers to stay put, has hovered over Mr. Allen's work ever since - or has at least recurred, implicitly and overtly, in reviews of it. Of course, quite a few of the movies that followed have been very funny indeed, and there have been several masterly fusions of humor and anguish. But even his most successful movies have been held up against, and have suffered in comparison to, the standard of his earlier work. Not an aesthetic standard - it is hard to deny that his skill and resourcefulness as a filmmaker have grown over the years - but one that is more invidious because it is impossible to live up to. His newer movies - 25 years' worth! - are found wanting because they don't live up to our memories of what the earlier ones meant to us.
Which was what, exactly? In the 1970's, Mr. Allen seemed to be a representative man, always a dangerous position for a popular artist. For one thing, he crystallized a distinct ethnic identity in the midst of a generational odyssey from lower-middle class provincialism to worldly success and cultural prestige - from that noisy shack under the Coney Island roller coaster in "Annie Hall" to the labyrinthine Upper East Side apartment where so many of his subsequent films were shot. But more than that, his high-strung, nebbishy, woman-crazy persona embodied a newly emergent urban male type, one prefigured in the comic strips of Jules Feiffer and the novels of Philip Roth. And Mr. Allen's particular blend of high culture and low, his autodidact's ardor for Dostoyevsky and Ingmar Bergman coupled with his roots in Borscht-belt standup, represented something new and potent on screen, a sensibility at once romantic and cynical, utterly silly and striving after some kind of intellectual seriousness.
Mr. Allen's influence can hardly be overestimated. Jon Stewart's frequent finger-to-the-lips impersonation is also a nightly reminder of where Mr. Stewart, along with Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David and a few dozen other comedians, not all of them Jewish, came from. And their refinements of Mr. Allen's style and persona are part of what has made the man himself seem obsolete.
There is also the intimation that the world he conjured up so brilliantly - of anxious, white, erudite New Yorkers falling in and out of love as they haunted revival houses, used book stores and the paths of Central Park - no longer quite exists, either as a social milieu or a cultural reference point. Perhaps it never did, but Mr. Allen's vistas of contemporary Manhattan are as deeply tinged with nostalgia as the city in his period dramas. The young, unhappy lovers played by Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci in "Anything Else" (2003) seem as quaint, with their talk of Dostoyevsky and Billie Holiday, as the hard-boiled dames and detectives of "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" (2001).
"Anything Else" also contains an implicit lesson to those who would insist that Mr. Allen owes them one. While Mr. Biggs's character, a young, uncertain comedy writer, is an obvious surrogate for the filmmaker, Mr. Allen himself plays David Dobel, a cantankerous older writer who serves both as the younger man's mentor and as a kind of walking antithesis to everything Mr. Allen has seemed to stand for in the past. He is physically fearless, confrontational, contemptuous of psychoanalysis and delighted by the prospect of moving to California. He is also no sane person's idea of a role model, which is part of the movie's point. Dobel is Mr. Allen's latest attempt to repel the identification that was conferred on him, most likely against his will, 30 years ago. Instead of making the movies we expect him to, he stubbornly makes the movies he wants to make, gathering his A-list casts for minor exercises in whimsy and bile that tend not to be appreciated when they arrive in theaters. How could they be? Mr. Allen will never again be his younger self, and his audience, as long as we refuse to acknowledge that fact, will never grow up, guaranteeing our further disappointment. Maybe what we have on our hands is a dead shark.