We all cling to our glory days. Or at least, we do when we have had them. Woody Allen has done so since Annie Hall, and now, almost forty years after such a feat, is showing signs of stopping. If Rifkin’s Festival is meant to be his swansong, then so be it, he ran out of fuel a long while ago. But he pushed forth and through, with nothing left to prove, but a need to create and craft. He tinkers with the formula he marketed so well for the decades of his popularity, and although his quality has faded, his ability to formulate an ensemble of middle-class socialites looking to complain has not. Now he simply piles on the talent, using their name value and star quality as a shoddy, panicked patchwork.
Instead of featuring in his own work, he now uses friends as a mouthpiece for his own inner fears. From his opening monologue, Wallace Shawn is presenting how Allen feels about all the usual deadly terrors that haunt him, and those dreaded film festivals. It sparks faint memories of Stardust Memories, but that is what they are. Memories. Memories of a time long before Allen was incapable of cobbling together worthy scenes. Has his shtick run dry? Did the cup ever flow over to begin with? Who can tell at this point, his latter-day projects all fade into one another, but Rifkin’s Festival feels particularly muted. There are moments reminiscent of the Roger Ebert book, Two Weeks in the Noonday Sun, which is a shoddy recollection of complaints from his time at Cannes Film Festival. Rifkin’s Festival feels similar to that, as Allen piggybacks the on-screen effect Shawn has, complaining and moaning about choices he hadn’t made and opportunities that were never presented to him.
What opportunities are presented here are Allen’s desire to riff on the classics of his upbringing. His clumsy ribbing of Citizen Kane plays more like parody than satire. At least it is brief. As is the taunting of 8 ½ and his obvious Ingmar Bergman influences. At least Allen is creating something he is comfortable doing, it is what brings out the best in his work, but Rifkin’s Festival is tainted and ugly. Compared to the passionate beauty found in the cinematography of his earlier works, his latest release leaks colour and feels airbrushed. It does not help that the tones and stylings of Stardust Memories are absorbed into the worrisome stance Shawn takes throughout. His odd dreams are mere mockeries of the films that inspired Allen, rather than the sophisticated understanding of his own work.
Take Stardust Memories’ core theme, for instance, for it can be found in Rifkin’s Festival too. It is the desire to be taken seriously, as a credible actor, director and writer, that Allen craves. He achieved it years before with Stardust Memories but now finds himself grappling with the same issue he did forty years before. As Shawn narrates his worries, the ostensible nature of his life is pulled and picked apart with no real interest. Allen toys with his leading mouthpiece like a bloated man with the final few scraps of food. It seems that Allen, too, is full, and could not afford another mouthful of clear-cut messages or meanings he was once so capable of. “I don’t just want to write one more lousy, mediocre novel” Shawn complains, and if that is not the projection of the modern Allen thought process, then irony is dead.
Still, it is that mediocrity Allen fears that he produces here. The usual consortium of ensemble, influence and fear are presented with no real effect. What I love about the classic works of Allen’s filmography, I detested within Rifkin’s Festival. He and his cast are simply going through the motions. Much of the dialogue from Mort Rifkin (Shawn) sounds better when imagined as if that bumbling narcissist from all those years ago was acting as well as directing. That time has passed. We as an audience have moved on, but Allen has not. If his final outing is to showcase his love for Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, then so be it. His ageing character still has not “found himself”, the clock is ticking. Isn’t it for everyone? He is no different, and if he wants the twilight masterclass he expects of himself, he must dig deeper. I fear it may be too late.