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Say it isn’t so — the decline of Woody Allen

Will Allen win back fans with “Anything Else”?

Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” True enough. But what happens if all you do is show up — and leave that other 20 percent on the cutting room floor?

Allen's a prime example of a once-hot moviemaker who’s now not much more than lukewarm. The nebbishy, bespectacled Manhattanite who makes films mostly about…nebbishy, bespectacled Manhattanites has in recent years — dare we say it? — gone soft as a New York cheesecake.

Other than “Sweet and Lowdown,” every Allen movie since 1997 has smelled vaguely of moldy film stock. And many former fans believe that Allen began his slide toward irrelevance a whole decade earlier than that.

So what happened? Where’s the Woody we knew and loved? How can a director make something as sweet and heartfelt as “Alice,” for instance, then turn around and deliver a movie as empty as “Celebrity” just eight years later?

Even hardcore Woody Allen fans cough nervously and stammer when his most recent films come up in conversation. Truly, there was once genius flowing through Allen’s camera lens (1977’s Best Picture “Annie Hall,” for one), which makes his latest missteps even more difficult to swallow.

Oh, the humanity
The characters in Allen’s latest movies offer little of the humanity and heart necessary to gain our sympathy as they take their trademark Woody Allen spiritual journey. Who wants to pay 10 bucks to watch bitter, angry, unrepentant people kvetch and moan for two hours?

Take 1997’s “Deconstructing Harry,” which details an unlikable writer’s descent into hell — literally. The main character (played by Allen) is such an unapologetic jerk that we simply don’t care if he finds redemption or not. It’s nearly impossible to make an appealing, human movie if the characters are just plain mean. Even box office biggies Demi Moore, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Elisabeth Shue couldn’t turn this thin, angry flick into something audiences wanted to see.

The next year, “Celebrity,” in which an equally unlovable Kenneth Branagh did the worst Woody Allen impersonation ever captured on celluloid, proved that the director wasn’t simply in a one-picture slump. Cue the ominous music.

The tone lightened a bit with Allen’s next three flicks, but the damage to his reputation may have already been done. “Small Time Crooks,” “Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” “Hollywood Ending” — not terrible, but they’re barely worth writing about. So it’s no surprise that Allen’s fans are keeping their fingers crossed that the Woodman will hit it out of the park this time with “Anything Else.”

If the trailer is any indication, you’d never guess that this young adult relationship pic starring Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci is actually Allen’s latest neurosis-fest. It’s the Woody Allen movie that’s being marketed as…anything but. With it, Woody’s on a slippery slope. If it’s not commercial enough, the mass audience will stay away in droves. But it comes off as “American Pie 4: The Upper West Side” and Biggs romances a cheese danish, Woody’s going to have a revolt on his hands among his dwindling number of diehard fans.

Still, while the “Anything Else” trailer is Woodyless, the themes running through the film are pure Allen: dysfunctional relationships, self-doubt, self-obsession. Will Allen’s neurotic introspection play with today’s lookit-that-spaceship-splode! audiences? Do today’s teens even know who Woody Allen is? Or do they think of him — if they think of him at all — as a creepy old guy who makes movies for their parents?

From his early slapstick pics (“Bananas” and “Sleeper”), to his quirky relationship flicks (“Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”), Allen churned out a string of critically adored pictures: “Zelig,” “Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Hannah and Her Sisters.” These films have plenty for everybody to appreciate, even for a generation raised on action movies and contrived romantic comedies. Whimsy. Dramatic heft. Class.

Where Woody went wrong Many people’s list of Where Woody Went Wrong begins with anything after 1989’s masterpiece “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” a brilliant blend of drama and comedy about love, death, jealousy and guilt. But did Allen set the bar so high with “Crimes” that anything in the future simply couldn’t measure up?

In the immortal words of Allen himself, “That’s crrrraaaazy.” Contrary to popular belief, his body of work over the last decade hasn’t been a total loss. Yes, Allen’s latest offerings have been as flat as an analyst’s couch, but a few of his movies in the mid-90s offer a glimmer of the clever, quirky Woody Allen we remember.

“Alice,” Allen’s 1990 follow-up to “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” is a sweet, tender, romantic fantasy about a weary, wealthy woman’s (Mia Farrow) quest for self-discovery and fulfillment. Along the way, she encounters magical herbs, love potions, invisibility, and the ghost of Alec Baldwin. It’s a wry, smile-inducing movie.

And the list goes on: “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993) is a witty — but not weighty — ride that re-teams Allen with former leading lady Diane Keaton as amateur sleuths who stumble upon a crime. “Bullets over Broadway” (1994) features a likable John Cusack as a 1920s playwright who cuts a deal with a gangster to get his show produced. Dianne Wiest’s Oscar-winning performance as an overdramatic stage star more than makes up for any shortfalls in the rest of the movie.

“Mighty Aphrodite” (1995) has its moments, particularly those featuring Mira Sorvino, who also took home a little gold statue for her performance as a ditzy porn star. Even “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996), the much-reviled musical, is worth the price of admission just to hear Drew Barrymore, Ed Norton, Julia Roberts and Goldie Hawn sing.

Art imitates life There’s plenty to like about Woody’s flicks, even the mediocre ones. His high-profile personal life, on the other hand, has soured many a fan on the director’s work. Yes, much hay has been made of Allen’s onscreen trysts with significantly younger women. But that fictional folly is nothing compared to Woody’s real-life Waterloo: his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn. It’s worth noting that the year he got hitched to his ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter — and drew the ire of millions — is the same year “Celebrity” came out - and kicked off a string of mediocre movies and audience apathy.

Indeed, Allen’s finest film in recent memory was the phenomenal tribute to New York that the director introduced at the first post-September 11 Academy Awards. The homage to his beloved Manhattan drew a standing ovation — and even helped turn the tide of public opinion back in Woody’s direction — and for good reason. Allen can capture the majesty, bustle and charm of New York City like no one else. (Check out the opening minutes of “Manhattan,” breathtakingly beautiful city shots set to the strains of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”)

If only the rest of his movies were so triumphant.

Will “Anything Else” break Allen’s streak? We’ll see. To make an impact with today’s audiences, Woody’s got to do a heck of a lot more than just show up. Especially since we’ve seen what he can do when he’s all there.