Movie in six parts.
Sticking with the numerical theme, here are three more things you should know up front about Woody Allen’s long-awaited Amazon series “Crisis in Six Scenes” (premiering Friday on Amazon; ★★★) — his first work for television in decades. The first is that it’s not a series at all, not in any normal sense of the word. It’s a slightly more than two-hour movie, sliced into six segments — none of which would work on its own.
The second is that it’s very, very Woodyish: The tone is completely familiar (think Allen in his Love and Death period), and he returns to his triple role as writer, director and star. The stammering, babbling, neuroticism, the wandering off into weird comic tangents — in short, the Woody Allen that many of us knew and loved from his peak film work in the ’70s and ’80s is on full display.
As for the third, that would be a cautionary note that “Crisis” is not Allen at his peak, nor at his most serious and contemplative as an artist. “Crisis” is a bauble, a light comedy that starts very slowly (consider that another caution) and builds to a satisfyingly funny conclusion.
Here are two final numbers you can add in: 80 and 84. Those are the ages of Allen and his co-star, Elaine May, who plays his wife. Not only is it great to see them performing so well together, it’s just a nice change of pace to see a comedy about two married senior citizens where the casting is age appropriate and the story is not built around senility or mortality.
We’re back in the late ‘60s, at the height of the social turmoil provoked by the war in Vietnam and the battles at home for civil rights. Allen is Sid Munsinger, a marginally successful novelist and would-be sitcom writer with a lovely home in the suburbs where his wife Kay (May) works as a marriage counselor.
It’s a very comfortable existence, until their home is invaded by Lennie Dale, a revolutionary-on-the-run agreeably played by Miley Cyrus. She spouts Maoist philosophy and condemns Sid’s hot fudge machine while eating his Fig Newtons — all of which upsets him greatly.
As much as Lennie annoys Sid, she inspires everyone else. That includes a young would-be money manager, Alan (John Magaro, a stand-in for a younger Woody Allen) and, most humorously, a ladies’ book club that suddenly turns to reading Marx and Lenin.
Given a role that, in an earlier Allen era, would have been played by Diane Keaton, Cyrus responds with a sharpness that mines a great deal of humor out of Lennie’s total disdain for Sidney. And for anyone who may have been worried, that mutual disdain keeps the characters more than arm’s length apart.
All of the issues and upheavals that marked the ’60s are on display here, but their main purpose is to get Sid and Kay out of their ruts and into a Marx Brothers comedy. As for the contentious issues that surround Allen, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether the behavior of the artist has ruined your ability to appreciate the art.
The balance here seems to work in “Crisis”‘ favor, but your math may differ.
Robert Bianco, USA TODAY