April 14, 2019

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)
Grade: 69/100

Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Mia Farrow, Woody Allen, Mary Steenburgen

What it's about. Very loosely based on the Shakespearean play whose title it parodies, "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The film is also said to be influenced by Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night.

Set circa 1910 in the New England country. Woody Allen is a inventor of goofy gadgets. His attractive brunette wife is Mary Steenburgen. The latter has turned frigid in recent months, agitating the balding, bespectacled, middle-aged Woody.

José Ferrer, a pompous and elderly but spry college professor, is Steenburgen's cousin. He is to marry the much younger Mia Farrow the next day, and is invited (along with Farrow) to spend the night at Allen's. Also invited is Allen's best friend Tony Roberts, a city doctor with irrepressible hormones. Roberts brings along his next conquest, Julie Hagerty, a nurse who, despite a shy demeanor, has as ravenous a sexual appetite as Roberts.

At this point, you may wonder how country inventor Allen has become best friends with city doctor Roberts. You might ponder how Allen supports his country lifestyle when his inventions appear to be commercial flops. You might disbelieve that flying bicycle can take off, especially with Farrow as a passenger. You might question how the 30-year-old Steenburgen and the 71-year-old Ferrer can be cousins. The director suggests that you put aside such concerns, and simply enjoy the comedy.

The guests arrive, and there is immediate sexual tension. Roberts falls immediately for Farrow, and Allen, who had a platonic romantic relationship with Farrow years ago, also nurses a crush on the sandy blonde. Roberts' passion is more obvious, drawing the ire of the observant Ferrer. But this doesn't prevent Ferrer from taking an interest in the willing Hagerty.

The resulting series of brief love triangles and squares are encouraged by spirits in the forest surrounding the country cottage. Allen's latest invention, a metal sphere that purportedly communicates with said spirits, inspires the romantic pursuits of the three couples.

How others will see it. Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) promoted Allen to first tier status among American filmmakers. Contemporary critics regarded A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy as a frivolous effort unworthy of Allen's talents. It didn't help matters when Allen revealed that he wrote the script in just two weeks, and was making the movie at the same time as two other projects (Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose).

The film was a financial bust, and failed to earn Oscar, Golden Globe, or BAFTA attention. Mia Farrow did, however, receive a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Actress.

Today at imdb.com, the film has a middling 17K user votes (by comparison, Annie Hall has 235K) and a okay-plus user rating of 6.7 (versus Annie Hall's 8.0). It should be noted, though, that women over 45, the most independent-minded demographic, grades the film substantially higher, at 7.5 out of 10.

Perusing the user reviews, there are none that proclaim the movie as Allen's best. But most writers, many of whom are presumably fans of Allen and/or Farrow, view the film kindly ("Allen's country comedy").

How I felt about it. I was bowled over by Steenburgen's performance. Steenburgen had received Golden Globe acting nominations in three of the prior four years, including a Best Supporting Actress win for Melvin and Howard, a role which also secured her only Oscar. Perhaps making A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy was a bad career move, since she has not been nominated for either an Oscar or Golden Globe since. Though she remains in demand today as an actress, more so than Mia Farrow or the me-too'd Woody Allen.

Woody Allen has a smaller role here than in his prior films. As always, we wonder what his love interests here (Steenburgen and Farrow) see in him, since he is physically unappealing and his character is an unsuccessful inventor. But if Julie Hagerty and Mia Farrow are both love interests for sneering septuagenarian Ferrer, then anything is possible in a movie.

Despite its absurdities, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy is better than its reputation. It seems that Allen wrote the screenplay as an enjoyable diversion, and was surprised that it was greeted with crickets. But the actors are good, the script is tidy, the film is agreeably short, and it is infinitely more bearable than Smiles of a Summer Night.