Seen from a certain angle, this is Woody Allen's best movie. Tucked in at the end of New York Stories, the 1989 triptych of extended shorts, Oedipus Wrecks is not nearly as well-known as it ought to be - most of the people who watch it with me are seeing it for the first time - but fans should feel no compunction about paying for a DVD of which they will rarely, if ever, watch more than a third. That Martin Scorsese's Life Lessons, an interestingly dated look at the downtown art scene, is merely an 'okay' picture, and that Francis Coppola's Life Without Zoe is possibly the worst movie ever made in color should not interfere with the huge pleasure that Mr Allen delivers in Oedipus Wrecks.
The certain angle of which I speak would be the angle of the pitch-perfect joke. There are plenty of very funny jokes in Woody Allen's oeuvre, and there are even a few very beautiful films with no jokes whatsoever - Another Woman captures the melancholy of autumn in Manhattan better than any other picture. But in Oedipus Wrecks there is only one joke. It is coterminous with the film itself, which is to say that there is not a moment in which some part of the really rather simple joke isn't being played out.
To tell the story of Oedipus Wrecks, therefore, is to give away the punch line of a joke. Happily, this joke is not all about its punch line. Actually, the punch line appears very early on, right after the setup. We have gotten to know an attorney, Sheldon Mills, né Milstein, and we have come to share the humiliation brought upon him by his archetypal Jewish mother. Mr Allen plays Sheldon, of course, but the soul of the movie is Mae Questel as Sadie Milstein. Mae Questel (1908-1988) was the vaudeville actress with a baby-ish voice who spoke Betty Boop's lines in the immortal Max Fleischer cartoons. IMDb has her down for over three hundred movies, but the first in which she actually appeared seems to have been A Majority of One in 1962. Oedipus Wrecks ought to have won her an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement at least. Mr Allen shrewdly places the sexy voice that we remember from the cartoons against the utterly frumpy, always disapproving Sadie. The laughs begin in earnest the minute we walk into her apartment, following Sheldon and his goyishe fiancée. Lisa (Mia Farrow) puts her best foot forward with a quick compliment about Sadie's apartment, but the old lady sourly waves it off. "He doesn't like it. He thinks it's too Jewish." In no time, she's showing Lisa baby pictures, mentioning that Sheldon was a bed-wetter, and expressing her disapproval of Sheldon's matrimonial prospects in no uncertain terms.
The setup, then, is the portrait of a harried, middle-aged man who tells his analyst — and the deftness with which Mr Allen utilizes therapy as a dramatic device is unsurpassed — that he wishes that his mother would "simply disappear." You hear him say this, but it doesn't really register, not the first time you see the movie. Sadie's dissatisfaction is so consummate and so unrelieved that you can't see what's coming. Her character really seems to be the joke. When she's corralled into being a magician's audience-participant, refusing to let go of her pocket book and reluctantly climbing into the secret-compartment box ("I'm jumping, I'm jumping."), you think that the joke is well advanced. But we're still very much in the setup.
Don't miss Sheldon's smirks of joy as the magician plunges sword after sword into the box, and don't be surprised when the magician opens up the box and finds that it is genuinely empty. At first outraged by Sadie's disappearance, Sheldon gradually comes to accept it (not that there is anything gradual about this fleet film), and he proceeds to luxuriate in a sweet but illusory happy ending. No longer undermined by his mother's regret that he has outgrown infancy, Sheldon relaxes for the first time in his life; you can feel him stretching with relief. Then he has the same kind of chipper deli encounter that precedes disaster in Speed. As he and the counterman wrap up their pleasantries, you can hear the hubbub out on the street; Sheldon idly wonders what it's all about. Then he walks outside.
Here's the joke. Mom hasn't vanished at all. She's taken up residence among the clouds over New York City, where she looms like a giant Macy's Parade float. We see only her head, shoulders, and upraised hands - just as God Almighty is usually imagined. She is telling the world, or a pretty wide swath of it, all about her "little darling" - as he was in the pictures that she always has with her, even in the sky - and how he drove her crazy all through his childhood. She appears to have everybody's attention; New Yorkers will be stricken by the thought of backed-up traffic. Sheldon begs her to be more discreet, but Sadie doesn't know from discretion. She asks the assembled crowd if Sheldon should get married to a divorcée with three children. (My favorite response comes from the lady who says, "I definitely think he should listen to his muthuh.")
So much for Sheldon's halcyon days. While Sadie informs the city that Sheldon was a bed-wetter, and Mayor Ed Koch applauds her crime-stopping work on television news, Sheldon's relationship with Lisa frays (not least because Mom is calling Lisa a whore in Yiddish), and Sheldon has to undergo what is certainly the unkindest cut of all: being addressed as Milstein by his analyst. The analyst feels that only recourse to the occult will resolve the "predicament," and he persuades Sheldon to consult a psychic, one Treva Marx of Brooklyn. Premonitions of a happy ending are sounded when Treva (Julie Kavner) greets Sheldon by telling him that he looks "terrible," thus echoing Sadie's first line, but once again we're too distracted by what's right in front of us to think ahead. It goes without saying that Mr Allen has a field day with Treva's battery of spells and charms; the picture becomes a headlong tumble of jokes within jokes. It also goes without saying that the spells and charms don't work. As a tearful compensation, Treva boils a chicken for Sheldon, and they have what's clearly (to everyone but them) a romantic dinner, complete with "flossing between courses." Treva sends Sheldon home with lovingly wrapped leftovers.
I haven't timed it, but the movie is over within minutes of this send-off, complete with the neatest happy ending that I've ever sat through and the most stupefyingly funny recognition scene (Sheldon with the leftover chicken, already trailing gelatinous ooze). And now that it's over, I see that I've had it all wrong. Oedipus Wrecks is not built on a joke. It's built on a fable, and the moral of the story is "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Like its e-pun-ymous source, this Oedipus is charged with bittersweet resignation to the human condition. Only it's much, much funnier. (September 2004)
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press