Woody Allen operates on what he calls “the quantity theory”: Make enough movies, and some are bound to be good.
In “Woody Allen: A Documentary,” a two-part, 3 1/2-hour film airing on PBS’s “American Masters” series, director Robert Weide takes that approach to biography.
Scores of Allen’s co-stars and collaborators line up for Weide’s camera -- as does the press-shy Allen himself -- for an exhaustive portrait of the 75-year-old comic legend.
Airing on consecutive nights, “Woody Allen” is as comprehensive as any project blessed by the man himself is likely to get. With the entirely expected exception of Mia Farrow, seemingly every major star in the Woodman’s orbit shows up, from Diane Keaton and Louise Lasser to Scarlett Johansson and Owen Wilson.
Weide, best known as a producer and director of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” trailed Allen for two years, gaining unprecedented access to location shoots, editing rooms and Allen’s home. The two even take a Woody-guided tour of the Brooklyn neighborhood where Allen Stewart Konigsberg grew up.
“I was a sweet, happy kid,” Allen tells Weide, adding that he “turned grumpier” at age 5 with the onset of a lifelong obsession with mortality.
Cue the scene in Allen’s mid-career masterpiece “Annie Hall” when young Alvy bemoans the sun’s ultimate implosion. The documentary is at its finest when drawing such art/life comparisons.
Weide also turns his filmmaker’s eye to Allen’s influences, at one point nicely juxtaposing a clip from 1975’s “Love and Death” with an uncannily similar snippet from Bob Hope’s 1946 “Monsieur Beaucaire.”
The career low points are duly noted, but just. “After ‘Manhattan,’ the audience was ready to follow Woody Allen anywhere,” says critic and author F.X. Feeney. “Anywhere but ‘Stardust Memories.’”
The failures are presented as the unavoidable byproduct of Allen’s prolific output. But that’s a flimsy excuse for the endlessly recycled tropes and stilted dialogue that mar so many of his later films.
Weide is similarly cautious with Allen’s personal life, though he can’t ignore the 1992 scandal that erupted when Allen began his romantic relationship with future wife Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of then-girlfriend Farrow.
“Evil” blared a New York Post headline.
“None of that mattered to me,” responds Allen.
Almost 20 years later, with “Midnight in Paris” becoming Allen’s most commercially successful film, the Farrow brouhaha matters to few. Time, like Weide’s film, allows us to appreciate the director at his best.
“Woody Allen: A Documentary” airs Sunday and Monday on PBS’s “American Masters” at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***
‘The Bengali Detective’
Pudgy, soft-spoken and melancholy, Rajesh Ji is an improbable sleuth, almost certainly not up to the challenges presented by the crime-ridden city formerly known as Calcutta.
Documentarian Philip Cox couldn’t have picked a better hero.
“The Bengali Detective,” airing on HBO2 and HBO on Demand, follows Ji as he leads his small team of investigators through cases involving a cheating husband, counterfeit goods and a triple homicide.
“India has a dark, hidden side,” says Ji, who struggles to provide for his ailing wife and young son. “We clean up the mess in society.”
An overwhelmed, apathetic police force in the metropolis now called Kolkata has fostered a growing public reliance on self-styled private investigators like Ji.
Well, not exactly like Ji.
“Since I was a boy I dreamt of being a dancer,” he confides, explaining the decision to enter his wheezing, all- male staff in a television dance contest.
That’s too bad. The dance competition feels like a reality show contrivance and drags “Bengali” away from Ji’s daily perseverance, which is all the drama any documentary needs.
“The Bengali Detective” airs tomorrow on HBO2 at 8 p.m. New York time. Available Thursday on HBO on Demand. Rating: **1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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