Love him or hate him, Woody Allen has always had a sharp, observational eye on the human condition. His classic works like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” demonstrated his cynical yet alluring worldview, and it was further ingrained through his hallmark features — neurotic characters, biting dialogue and thought-provoking ruminations on existentialism and love. But since the early 2000s, Allen’s filmography has fluctuated from compelling (“Blue Jasmine,” “Match Point” and “Midnight in Paris”) to middling (“Irrational Man,” “Magic in the Moonlight” and “To Rome with Love”).
Despite the 80-year-old writer-director’s tireless work ethic, his recent offerings suggest his stories are getting tired and formulaic, which is particularly evident in Allen’s newest light comedy, “Crisis in Six Scenes.” The fact that Allen regretted making a television show in the first place says a lot about how poorly “Crisis in Six Scenes” is executed.
Some witty lines and warm visuals notwithstanding, “Crisis in Six Scenes” is a familiar, dull and slow-paced affair in Allen’s late-period canon. What could have easily been a stage play or a decent full-length film is instead a show comprised of six uninspired episodes filled with excessive, dialogue-heavy sequences, lackluster camerawork and grating performances.
Once again playing his trifecta role as writer, director and lead actor, Allen plays anxious novelist Sidney J. Munsinger, another one of his broadly stroked protagonists that could have been witty in the ’70s, but is simply an annoying kvetcher now. It’s no surprise that Allen hasn’t performed that well on the acting side, as the last critically acclaimed piece he starred in was his 1996 musical comedy “Everyone Says I Love You.” Luckily, he gets help from his talented co-star Elaine May (“Small Time Crooks”), who delivers a standout performance as his loving marriage therapist wife Kay.
The elderly, middle-class couple shares a comfortable living space during the socially turbulent era of the 1960s, but suddenly gets an unexpected visit from peace-loving, leftist fugitive Lennie Dale (Miley Cyrus, “Hannah Montana”). Hijinks ensue, and by hijinks, I mean lots and lots of senseless rambling from Sidney about how his life has been turned upside down because of Lennie’s presence.
In a sense, the plot has potential to work as a microcosm reflecting the various societal crises and political polarization of the 1960s and today, but it lacks the tenacity and depth to explore such topics. Lennie’s abrupt arrival sparks a chain of events and discussions about FBI surveillance, consumerism and the moral decay of the Vietnam War with Sidney and among Kay’s all-white female book club. However, the results are somehow less than stimulating.
The conversations between these characters may seem somewhat intriguing on paper, but seeing them play out is exhausting and dull to watch. Cyrus is an especially bad choice to play Lennie, delivering each line with a stilted, awkward cadence. Her acting was never really a highlight in the first place, and her performance comes off as sitcom-y, reminiscent of her Disney Channel days.
The other cast members do their best with what they’re given, but it’s easy to tell that they’re also struggling under the weight of Allen’s script. “Orange is the New Black” ’s John Magaro certainly brings the energy as Alan Brockman, the conservative-turned-woke son of Sidney’s family friend, but his exaggerated recitation of almost every one of his lines is cringe-worthy to watch. Stand-up comedian Bobby Slayton plays Sidney’s frustrated acquaintance, Mel, using the best of his brash, intense comedic style to fuel a meandering sequence between him and Sidney in episode three. One of the only significantly witty scenes involves Lewis Black (“Inside Out”) and Becky Ann Baker (“Girls”), playing two of Kay’s patients who literally hate everything about one another, but share a distaste for guacamole.
“Crisis in Six Scenes” could have served as Allen’s calling card from film to television, but the series is a creative failure on all fronts. The long-held sexual abuse allegations against Allen, as well as his questionable marriage to his ex-partner’s daughter, don’t make watching his material any easier, either. There’s definitely some charm and wit left in Allen, but considering how the man has become hit-or-miss in the past few years, his days of being one of the most acclaimed, notable directors of Hollywood seem to be winding down.