The Onion A.V. Club is probably the best source for excellent film criticism. It’s irreverent, yet it doesn’t devolve into snarkiness for snarkiness’ sake. It’s through The Onion A.V. Club that I learned about a film trope – the manic pixie dream girl – a character popular in male-fantasy wish-fulfillment films that I was always aware of, but never had a name for her; The Onion A.V. Club‘s Nahan Rubin characterizes the manic pixie dream girl as “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” He was referencing Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown, the 2005 Cameron Crow dramedy.
And while Dunst is seemingly the epitome of this film stock character, there are other “guilty” offenders, compiled by Rubin and his colleagues, Donna Bowman, Amelie Gillette, Steve Hyden, Noel Murray, and Leonard Pierce, in “Wild things: 16 films featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls.” Among the women on the list, are the obvious contenders: Goldie Hawn, Kate Hudson, or Meg Ryan. But one entry stood out above the rest: Diane Keaton’s title character from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. When describing Annie Hall, the article states,
“The grand champion of the MPDG fighting league, ’70s division, just might be Diane Keaton as the title character in Woody Allen’s most good-natured film. The fact that she pulled this off in a world that let Goldie Hawn run around loose is just a further testament to how completely Keaton filled out the role of what otherwise could have been a shallow wish-fulfillment fantasy. Her character certainly does have wish-fulfillment elements. But while it’s hard to believe such a woman could exist, it’s very easy to believe that if she did, she’d be a perfect match for Allen’s prototypically nebbishy character, Alvy Singer. If ever there was a comedian who needed to lighten up, it was him, and if there was ever a woman who could make him do it with just a “la-di-dah,” it was her.”
I’m not sure how on-the-mark the panel of judges are when judging the character or the film. Annie Hall tells the story of Alvy Singer (Allen), a comedian who is trying to figure out why his relationship with Annie Hall (Keaton) didn’t work. It’s a funny, yet very bittersweet story of how two people who are seemingly in love, cannot make their relationship work because while she was growing and changing as a person, he was pretty static. During the movie, Alvy tries to “better” Annie by taking her to serious films – like The Sorrow and the Pity – and he encourages her to take classes and go to therapy – he’s trying to mold her into his ideal woman. Reading this summary, maybe – just maybe – one could see Annie as being a manic pixie dream girl – after all, she’s supposed to be a one-dimensional fantasy, object of wish fulfillment. But I disagree – I think Annie represents a very ordinary young woman going through deep changing, rejecting and keeping some of the Alvy’s “lessons.” It’s clear that Annie’s maturity and growth are profound – much more than Alvy’s – who doesn’t “get” why they couldn’t work, nor does he “get” love until the lovely, elegaic end, when the two just happen to meet after their breakup.
Because we’re given the story through Alvy’s eyes, it’s natural that he dominates the film – despite it being titled Annie Hall (I would assume if Keaton had directed and wrote the piece, it would be told through Annie’s point of view…and maybe be called Alvy Singer). And given that Alvy is obviously a fictional version of Allen, we can assume that a lot of what went into writing Annie Hall happened to Allen and Keaton when they were dating. I think that Alvy wanted Annie to be a manic pixie dream girl, to fulfill his need for excitement and spontaneity (both qualities that he seems to lack, but that Annie possessed in alarming quantities – just watch her appalling driving); but what sets Annie apart from the manic pixie dream girl is that she ultimately doesn’t perform the role Alvy wants her to (which is a credit to Allen as he wrote the film). He recognizes that at the end of the film – what the failed relationship does teach Alvy is that even when it’s finite, love is important and necessary.
It’s also interesting that anyone would accuse Woody Allen of crafting a manic pixie dream girl, because the label would connote a lack of complexity and dimension – which certainly would be off-base when looking at Annie. She’s a mess of neuroses (which is why it makes sense that Alvy and she got together, and makes even more sense why they broke up), but she also has an innate intelligence and a healthy curiosity, despite her lack of formal education. Alvy’s a bit like a car stuck in mud, spinning his wheels – he wants something more out of life, but is hesitant to move out of his comfort zone – meanwhile, Annie is willing to risk her complacency (for example, despite her jittery nerves, she stands in front of a crowd at a nightclub to realize her dreams of becoming a singer) to experience something new and unfamiliar. Her desire to grow and learn is made all the more poignant by the depiction of her family members at prototypical WASPs – though Annie’s mother, Mrs. Hall, is a wonder, and is one of the few film appearances of the fantastic Colleen Dewhurst.
Also interesting is that even though Allen’s Alvy is the protagonist of the story, it’s Keaton’s Annie that commands the audience’s attention. She’s gifted with some wonderful dialogue (her deceptively simple “la-di-da” perfectly epitomizes her willingness to cover up her insecurity with faux ditziness), and essentially steals the film from her costar. In interviews, Allen has admitted frequently that Keaton is the stronger comedian of the two, and then he understands that he has to become the straight man when he works with her because she’s just funnier on-screen: Despite his one-liners and his references to his standup work, he’s only too happy to step aside and let Keaton “do her thing” and create her patented comedic persona: an expert blend of brainy comedy and fluttering pathos – her slight dithering, her stammering, the rapid hand movements, the rueful smile, the self-effacing grin, the self-deprecating eye roll – these are all ingredients that come together to craft a lovely, funny, and sad comic character, much like Chaplin’s Tramp or Monroe’s dizzy blonde – we laugh at her, but we also rally behind her.
Upon first view, I understand that Annie would seem to function as a way for Alvy to grow – she came into his life, just when he needed her, so that he can break out of his self-imposed shell of self-preservation, and allow himself to see the need for companionship. If Annie’s journey just ended there and she was quickly disposed of, then yes, she would be a manic pixie dream girl. However, it’s Annie growth that is far more compelling in the film. And because we do see her grow, and outgrow Alvy, I cannot agree that Annie is a manic pixie dream girl. I think she’s far more complex and interesting than that.