The Insanity Defense

I wrote the following article about Woody Allen’s The Insanity Defense for my Jerusalem Post books column, but it turned out someone had recently reviewed the book for the Post. So I publish it here for your reading pleasure…

A Laughing Matter
Woody Allen’s new film, Cassandra’s Dream, has ushered in the kind of cultural anxiety that only Woody can produce. Allen is 72, but he hasn’t slowed with age, continuing to release nearly a film a year. Much to the chagrin of his long-time fans.

Conventional wisdom says that Allen’s films have — with sporadic exceptions — been precipitously declining in quality. At this point, his movies are like family reunions, events that annually force us to confront the intersection of nostalgia and betrayal.

And because Allen always seems to have a new film in the theatres it’s difficult to find the dispassionate distance needed to truly review his oeuvre.

Not so when it comes to Allen’s prose.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Woody Allen’s comedic essays and stories were often found on the pages of the New Yorker and other publications, but until recently, he abandoned this line of work. Last year, Random House published The Insanity Defense, a single-volume compilation of Allen’s three early books, Getting Even (1971), Without Feathers (1975), and Side Effects (1980). And now there’s plenty of critical distance to look back admiringly at these efforts.

Allen’s preoccupation with the metaphysical and philosophical is one of the most striking aspects of his early writings. He engages these weighty subjects with humor, of course, but, interestingly, one gets the sense that he’s well acquainted with the source material.

In the brilliant story “Mr. Big,� Heather Butkiss visits a private investigator named Lupowitz and asks him to help her find God. Soon enough, however, God turns up dead, and Lupowitz has to unravel the mystery with the great philosophers as guides.

“I had a beer at O’Rourke’s and tried to add it all up, but it made no sense at all. Socrates was a suicide — or so they said. Christ was murdered. Nietzsche went nuts. If there was someone out there, He sure as hell didn’t want anybody to know it.â€?

Posted on February 12, 2008

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