'Wild Man Blues' Shows Woody Allen More Frivolous Than Flamboyant

The title of the latest Woody Allen picture, "Wild Man Blues," has an amusing touch of irony.

Directed by nonfiction filmmaker Barbara Kopple, the movie chronicles Allen's experiences as he travels with his Dixieland band on a European concert tour. Since his public image is closer to a hard-working nerd than a freewheeling wild man, audiences may wonder if a new side of his personality becomes visible when he exchanges his film-world persona for his alter ego as a jazz clarinetist.

Not surprisingly, the answer turns out to be a definite no. The only wildness that surfaces during the documentary is in the New Orleans-style music that cascades from his septet during their too-brief concert scenes.

And that's one of the movie's major problems. Clearly impressed by her opportunity to document the off-screen life of this famously private celebrity - and his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, whom he married after a period of tumultuous public scandal - Kopple focuses less on his musical activities than on his hours away from the spotlight. We look on as he and Previn check into hotels, exercise in the pool, discuss the previous evening's performance, and so forth.

Most of this material is the opposite of exciting, and there's little chance anyone would watch it for 104 minutes if a usually elusive movie star weren't involved. Allen may have enough devoted fans to give "Wild Man Blues" a modest degree of success, but it's hard to imagine many moviegoers lining up at the box office for the privilege of watching Allen and Previn chat over breakfast - as if a camera crew weren't two feet away during this "intimate" moment - and consult with the concierge when one of their showers doesn't pump out enough hot water.

All of which raises the question of why Allen and Kopple made the picture. Allen's motivation isn't hard to figure out. His troubled family life has been the subject of highly unflattering press coverage, and his recent fiction films - the comedies "Mighty Aphrodite" and "Deconstructing Harry" in particular - seem calculated to rehabilitate his image by demonstrating his concern with personal and artistic integrity. With its lack of flamboyant content, "Wild Man Blues" does the same; it's certain nobody will leave this movie feeling they've been anywhere near a wild man.

Kopple's reasons for making the movie are harder to imagine. Her honors include richly deserved Academy Awards for "Harlan County USA," about a bitterly fought coal-mining strike, and "American Dream," about rifts in organized labor at a Midwestern meatpacking plant. Her involvement with "Wild Man Blues" may be a temporary vacation from such serious fare, or perhaps she just couldn't resist the chance to spend so much time with a controversial movie star.

In any case, she hasn't succeeded in giving her subject the urgency or intensity that surge through her best pictures. Here's hoping she returns to more involving material now that the vacation is over.

* Rated PG; contains one harsh vulgarity.

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