TV's The Wild World of Sports has travelled to South America to cover a political assassination, and their reporter Howard Cosell is on the spot to capture the moment when the President is gunned down. Pushing through the crowds he manages to get the fatally injured man's final words before expiring, and as a bonus the opinion of the new President, the dictator General Vargas (Carlos Montalbán) who has stepped in to bring a hardline misery to the nation. Such is life in a banana republic, but travel north to the United States and you'll find Fielding Mellish (Woody Allen) trying to earn a crust as a products tester, today struggling with an office executive's exercise machine. So how did he get involved in South American politics?
Bananas marked the first film where Woody Allen truly had creative control, working with his childhood friend and Johnny Carson gag man Mickey Rose to hone a script that would generate as many laughs as possible in under ninety minutes. For those used to the quickly maturing Allen of the late seventies and further on in his career, this was either classed as one of his early, funny ones or one of his nascent efforts where the elements of his particular talent and take on the world had yet to fully cohere. However, if it was joke after joke you wanted, with the star demonstrating his comedy persona at its most realised, then doubtless you would prefer this to an example of his more serious work.
Although some find it just too scattershot in its efforts to throw out as many one-liners and absurd situations as it could, that didn't mean for the rest of us that this wasn't funny, as in some places it brought out the best in Allen's comic instincts. There were mixed in with the snappier material the relationship business that he would increasingly become interested in, indicating that no matter how savvy he seemed in sending up the politics of developing nations as interfered with by the C.I.A. his heart didn't really lie with satire, it was either the quips or illustrating how tough it was to fall in love in a decade growing increasingly wise to the fact that many men just wanted sex first, romance second, and Fielding, no matter his pretensions, is slightly shamefaced that he is one of those men.
The implication that most males are one of those men was what fuelled the hapless hero's journey from trying to impress the activist who shows up at his door, Nancy (Louise Lasser, soon to be Allen's ex-wife in real life), to being arrested for plotting against the United States as leader of a corrupt regime. All of this happens because Nancy was too aware of his flaws to stick with their relationship, which would look suspiciously like blaming the women in the world for the problems of the men except the film is so aware of how foolish the masculine ego is that it highlights that at every turn. Pretty much everyone here is silly, but there are few so silly as Fielding who seems to drag the world around him down to the level of the ludicrous that confirms to him the insanity of society.
Naturally, there's a therapy scene, giving rise to one of Allen's most perfect early sketches when he relates a dream to the bafflement of his psychiatrist where he is on a cross carried by cowled monks, they try to find a parking space and are beaten to it by a cameo from Allen Garfield also on a cross held aloft by monks, resulting in a mass brawl between them. If that doesn't make you laugh, you were never going to get Allen's sense of humour, as it encapsulates the lunacies of the modern world mixed with the pressures of the spiritual and the place of the modern male in society... you could get really pretentious here, and many do, but then there's always the bits such as a post-break up Fielding travelling to San Marco and invited to dinner with the President, which he lies back on his bed to consider as dreamy harp plays on the soundtrack. Whereupon he wonders where the sound is coming from and finds a harpist practicing in his wardrobe. The near-climactic courtroom spoof was surely an influence on The Kentucky Fried Movie too - in fact the whole thing is influential. Music by Marvin Hamlisch.
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.