Bananas (1971) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexuality, nudity, some drug use and crude language
Running time: 82 min.
Cast: Woody Allen, Louise Lasser, Carlos Montalban, Howard Cosell
Cameo: Charlotte Rae, Conrad Bain, Sylvester Stallone
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen, Mickey Rose
Before Woody Allen (Love and Death, Annie Hall) would be known for his more sophisticated, introspective comedies and dramas, he was all about making people laugh, and there's no better example of his early physical humor and sight gag style than 1971's lighthearted screwball comedy, Bananas. Allen stars as Fielding Mellish, a nebbish New York resident working his dead-end job as a product tester who gets involved with a left-wing activist named Nancy (Lasser, Mystery Men) and ends up wooing her by agreeing to fight for freedom for the oppressed people of the fictional Latin American country of San Marcos. Nancy doesn't have the hots for Fielding, but she does for him as his alter ego, the stand-in dictator that had been once the right-hand man in the new regime of the country once the guerillas has proven successful. But now he's the target for the U.S. government himself, and may be in over his head in the assumed role he stumbled into for love.
Bananas is a funny film, though it hasn't quite aged as well as other of Allen's works, primarily due to its topical, satirical subtext that had been more poignant coming out of the turbulent 1960s, but also because he employs a great deal of old-fashioned forms of slapstick that recall the Marx Brothers, Three Stooges and their ilk from the 1930s. Targeting such things as U.S. foreign policy, upstart dictatorships, and the banality of television, Allen pokes fun in rather benign ways at many of the day's topsy-turvy hot topics, all the while maintaining its absurd tone throughout. Marvin Hamlisch's (The Spy Who Loved Me, Seems Like Old Times) excellent, peppy score enhances the mood of mirth and amusement.
There isn't a real story here to hold on to; it's a series of short and long skits revolving around certain themes, particularly love, sex, death, entertainment, and politics. It's as if Allen took all of the items that caused him anguish and fueled his neuroses at the time spilled on to the screen, as he dissects them down to the most humorous denominator so that he can cope and process them, seeing the silliness in the most serious of situations. Even such things as Allen's primary motivation to do great things being for sex and affection, to the difficulty of buying pornography at a public newsstand discretely, are lampooned in ways that are, even when obvious, often hilarious in their futility and underlying truthfulness.
Bananas is primarily recommended to viewers who enjoy Woody Allen's films, particularly his straight comedies. It features Allen in nearly every scene in all his neurotic glory, employing a kitchen sink approach to his comedy that doesn't stop at much to extract laughs out of its audience. As joke-a-minute comedies go, not everything will work, but the laugh quotient is higher than most, and credit Allen in giving much to ponder underneath the ludicrous presentation of the culture of its time.
©2012 Vince Leo