Oedipus Wrecks (New York Stories), 1989

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In 1989 Woody Allen joined forces with fellow directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, with each of the 1970s cinema heavy hitters contributing a short film to the omnibus feature, New York Stories. Woody’s was the final film of the three, punningly titled Oedipus Wrecks. 

Woody plays Sheldon, a parter in a law firm whose life is marred by the constant interference and embarrassing nature of his mother (Mae Questel). When Sheldon and his girlfriend Lisa (Mia Farrow) take his mother to a magic show, she is called upon to take part in a disappearing act. But she never reappears. After a few days of worry, Sheldon begins to relax and enjoy his life with his mother out of the picture. Before long, however, she inexplicably materialises in the skies above Manhattan, now embarrassing him on a city-wide scale. While New Yorkers come to accept the freakish occurrence, Sheldon’s life falls apart and in desperation he turns to a psychic, Treva (Julie Kavner), for help.

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After the dour dramas of September and Another Woman, this short film marked a return to pure comedy. There are big laughs to be had, mostly watching Woody recoil in discomfort whenever his mother is around, and in a montage of him attempting various occult rituals to remedy the situation.

As entertaining as it is, this is really just a soupçon of a Woody Allen film. It is just long enough to sustain its short story structure; it resembles The Purple Rose Of Cairo but without that film’s added twist of the actor coming to town to complicate the plot. What it does share with that film, and with several of Woody’s films, is magic realism.

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Some of the film’s biggest laughs come via the soundtrack, such as the ominous beating of Gene Krupa’s drums in Sing Sing Sing heard as Sheldon’s mother invades his conservative law firm’s office, or the use of a melodramatic All The Things You Are which swells as Woody stares at a piece of boiled chicken and realise he is in love. If you know your Great American Songbook, there’s always the added bonus of picking up titles of tunes which reflect the film, and in this case we get I’ll Be Seeing You and the Freudian, I Want A Girl (Just Like The Girl That Married Dear Old Dad).

Woody regulars in the cast include Mia Farrow in an unflattering role of the shiksa girlfriend, and  Julie Kavner (best known as the voice of Marge Simpson) getting all the laughs as the fraudulent medium. Mae Questel (best known as the voice of another cartoon icon, Betty Boop) sang a period style song in Zelig, and the future leading man of Whatever Works, Larry David, pops up here in a small role.

As much I enjoyed Another Woman, this was a nice change of pace and a reminder of Woody’s abilities as a comic writer and director. Oedipus Wrecks might not be a feature length masterpiece, but it is a funny idea that is executed just right and doesn’t wear out its welcome.

Next week: Crimes and Misdemenors

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