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Hilarity by the Bunch: Bananas

Hilarity by the Bunch: Bananas

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Apr 30th 2018

CNN’s recent “fact-based” promotional campaign has fruitfully accorded new prominence on the importance of apples (equated with “the actual truth”) and bananas (equated with “fake news”). “Botanically a berry,” as Wikipedia declares, the banana has traditionally borne a perhaps unfair image of comedic slipperiness or flat-out craziness, so perhaps it was fate that Woody Allen’s second directorial effort, which opened 47 years ago this week and was strictly about being funny, came to be called Bananas, after an incubation period in which it was tentatively titled El Weirdo. As the movie, which has come to be analyzed as a homage to the Marx Brothers’ uproarious Duck Soup (1933) in its political sendup of a revolution-roiled micro-nation, does slip and slide on the way to delivering verbal and slapstick-rooted volumes of laughter, the moniker is entirely appropriate. As Allen told Rolling Stone: “They say it’s a political film but I don’t really believe much in politics. Groucho has told me that the Marx Brothers’ films were never consciously anti-establishment or political. It’s always got to be a funny movie first.” 

So, despite the fact that the film deals with the challenges of modern urban romance, sexual obsession, confounding technological advances, political unrest, revolutionary movements, capitalist influences on U.S. foreign policy and frenzied media coverage of breaking news, its true aim was funny…period, and the ragtag story it related, about a nebbish New York product tester (Allen) who allows himself to become swept up in a Latin American nation’s guerrilla revolution in order to win the affections of a winsomely idealistic girl (Louise Lasser), is memorable only for the passing parade of witty wordplay and silly sight gags that outfitted it, all part of its charm. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby reasoned: “It's also an indecently funny movie, on its own, and in spots – a qualification I add with some hesitation because I'm not sure that its unfunny spots are terribly important. Thirty years ago, some very perceptive critics, including James Agee and Otis Ferguson, used to grow all sad and misty in print because W. C. Fields seldom made a movie that was as funny in its entirety as it was in its individual parts. Today, it doesn't make any difference. That was the sort of movie Fields made, and now we accept the rhythm of his comic genius, since it was an indispensable part of that genius. The same may well be true of Woody Allen who, when he is good, is inspired. How ever, when he's bad, he's not rotten; rather, he's just not so hot.” He concluded: “Any movie that attempts to mix together love, Cuban revolution, the CIA, Jewish mothers, J. Edgar Hoover and a few other odds and ends (including a sequence in which someone orders 1,000 grilled cheese sandwiches) is bound to be a little weird – and most welcome.” Even while noting that “the film is somewhat dated and contains several scenes so embarrassingly stupid that it’s hard to believe Allen conceived them,” Guide for the Film Fanatic oracle Danny Peary still cites the following treasures: “Allen sneakily buying Orgasm magazine and having the dealer call across the crowded shop to ask its price; Allen hiding behind his magazine while two thugs (one is Sylvester Stallone) maul the crippled old lady who sits beside him in the subway; Allen visiting his parents, both doctors, while they are in the midst of an operation; Allen ordering takeout food for 900 guerrilla fighters; Allen testing office sports equipment. Best of all are his meetings and breakup with Louise Lasser, who finds he lacks almost every important quality. These hilarious and perceptive scenes are quintessential Allen that could easily fit into such later, sophisticated relationship comedies as Annie Hall and Manhattan.” All this and Howard Cosell play-by-play and Marvin Hamlisch music too are on offer in the sly, spry 47-year-old Bananas, which can be peeled open anytime on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.