With the release of his latest film, "Small Time Crooks," the critics and audiences are celebrating Woody Allen's return to the madcap comedy of his earliest films. "Small Time Crooks" is indeed as lighthearted a comedic romp as Allen has produced in years. But the movie also reprises some of Allen's oldest themes. He teaches us that both our most noble aspirations and our desire for material goods ultimately deceive us. And as in most of his films since "Love and Death" (1975), Allen concludes that even though we continually suffer disappointment and disillusion when our dreams or loves fail--we will be infinitely happier if we share our miserable lives with other miserable people.

After his 1960s tributes to Chaplin and Keaton, Allen's films famously developed a darker edge through the 1970s and '80s, raising theological questions about the nature of God, the inexplicability of human suffering, the meaning of religion, and the failure of love. Of course, these issues were never far from Allen's mind, even in his comedy; in his book "Without Feathers," the Bible's suffering hero Job grabs God by the neck and tells God, "You have a good job; don't blow it."

Yet in the movies of his middle period, which we can define as those made between 1975 and 1990, Allen turned into one of our most notable theological filmmakers.

His Academy Award-winning "Annie Hall" (1977) introduces Allen's dominant theological concern: the mystery of human suffering and misery in a meaningless world. Early in the film--in a scene repeated in various permutations in his later movies--young Alvy Singer worries that life is meaningless. The universe is expanding, and since the universe is everything, one day there will be nothing. So, Alvy ponders, why bother? ("What is that your problem?" Alvy's mother answers. "You're in Brooklyn, Brooklyn's not expanding.")

Later, in a wonderful scene, the grown Alvy (Allen) offers to buy Annie (Diane Keaton) some books on death. When she says she'd rather have a cat book, he explains his view of life: "Life is divided into two categories--the horrible and the miserable. The horrible are the terminal cases; blind people and the crippled. The miserable is everybody else. Be happy you're miserable."

Allen's pessimism about life's meaning announces itself in numerous ways in "Manhattan" (1979), "Interiors" (1979), "Stardust Memories" (1980), and "Broadway Danny Rose" (1984). Inevitably, one character--often Woody's--is a prophet crying in the wilderness, alone in appreciating the bleakness of the world. "I see human suffering all around me," says Woody's stand-in in "Stardust Memories," Allen's response to the critical reception of "Interiors" as dark and unfunny. His agents respond, "Human suffering doesn't sell tickets."

Allen's pessimism reaches its nadir in "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986) and "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989). In "Hannah," a subplot involves a hypochondriac television producer, Mickey (Allen), who is briefly thought to have a tumor in his brain. When the diagnosis turns out to be false, Mickey is elated. But his joy is suddenly cut short when he realizes that the meaninglessness he espied as a doomed man still pertains. Allen quotes Tolstoy as an epigraph to Mickey's journey: "The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless."

Mickey sets out to find answers, first by considering joining the Catholic Church and then by contemplating becoming a Hare Krishna. He declares over and over: "I have to believe in God if life is going to have any meaning. In a godless universe, I didn't want to go on living."

Yet, religion never provides Mickey with an answer; the Marx Brothers do. At the bottom of his depression, he wanders into a theater where "Duck Soup" is playing. The movie spurs a revelation: "What if I'm wrong? What if there is a God? Nobody knows for certain. Don't I want to enjoy life while it lasts?"

Allen ends the film as Holly (Dianne Wiest) tells Mickey, heretofore infertile, that she is pregnant. With Mickey's realization, a miracle has happened.

If the possibility of God holds out the hope of meaning, those who seek it aren't necessarily rewarded for their diligence. In "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989), Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), an opthamologist, remarks that "the eyes of God are on us always." But he rejects God's presence. He asks his brother to have his mistress, Dolores (Anjelica Houston), killed because she cannot accept the end of their affair. Judah, an irreligious Jew, begins to rationalize his choices to Ben (Sam Waterson), a rabbi who is going blind. Ben tells Judah that there is a moral structure and a higher power that provides real meaning in the world. Judah retorts that "God is a luxury I can't afford."

In the end, Judah and Cliff (Allen), a filmmaker, speculate about "the perfect murder." Judah, miserable since Dolores' death, all but confesses to Cliff, telling him about the killing without implicating himself. He notes that though he has suffered, he awakened one morning to a clear conscience. Cliff responds that if he made a film about Judah's story, he would have the murderer turn himself in. In "the absence of a God, he would be forced to assume responsibility for it himself." Judah tells Cliff that he sees too many movies.

After "Crimes and Misdemeanors," Allen seems to have dropped serious treatment of these issues. As a last take on meaninglessness, the movie offers little in the way of conclusions. Misery and suffering are the stuff of life, Allen seems to say. But taken as a body, the films of Allen's middle period offer this hope: that love and community are miracles all of us can participate in, the miserable and the horrible alike.

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