A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy followed three of Woody Allen’s deepest, most complex pictures – the intense Interiors, career-defining Manhattan and surreal satire Stardust Memories – and proved to the director’s lightest film since 1975’s Love & Death. It’s certainly not first-rate Woody, and not as good as those unassuming gems Broadway Danny Rose or Radio Days, but does provide some gentle laughs and a great ensemble cast.
Set in the early 1900s, Woody stars as Andrew, a Wall Street accountant who at weekends relaxes in his large countryside house, indulging his passion as an inventor. Andrew and his wife Adrian (Mary Steenburgen) are having problems in the bedroom, which come to a head when her pompous professor cousin Leopold (José Ferrer) comes to visit with his beautiful young fiancée Ariel (Mia Farrow). Andrew and Ariel knew each other years ago – when she was still a promiscuous convent girl – but they never consummated the obvious attraction they had. The group is completed by Andrew’s best friend Maxwell (Tony Roberts) a womanising doctor, who is accompanied by airhead nurse Dulcy (Julie Hagerty).
This is essentially a bedroom farce set in the great outdoors, and much of the film revolves around characters trying to get the objects of their desires alone. Sexually-frustrated Andrew finds his dormant passion for Ariel awoken, sex-mad Maxwell declares that he too loves Ariel, Leopold pursues Dulcy for one last fling before marriage, and Adrian harbours a secret about a past liaison with Maxwell. Tony Roberts revives his wise-cracking, arrogant best friend persona from previous Allen films Play It Again Sam and Annie Hall, while José Ferrer has some hilariously pompous moments as he argues scientific theory with Maxwell. This was also Farrow’s first film with Allen; it’s tough stepping into Diane Keaton’s shoes, but he wisely casts her in a more feminine, less obvious ‘comic’ role.
There are amusing lines and good slapstick moments – most involving Woody and his array of crazy inventions – but in general, it’s not quite funny enough to prop up such a lightweight plot. The joy of films like Sleeper or Love & Death was in the sheer comic propulsion, one gag after another, so that the cumulative effect was greater than any one joke. A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy doesn’t have that, and the characters are too sketchily drawn to engage on any level other than comic. There’s no denying the craftsmanship involved here – Gordon Willis’s countryside cinematography is particularly gorgeous – but it’s all as light as a breeze on a summer’s afternoon.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.