Before watching Bananas, the only “early” Woody Allen comedy I was familiar with was Sleeper. There are, certainly, similarities between the two, specifically with regards to political revolution by accidental circumstance and, of course, the nebbish lead at the center, played by Allen himself. Where Sleeper is a tale set in a distant futurescape, Bananas is more a trip of its time and place. I say “trip,” as the first genre to come to mind after viewing was of the acid variety. And, from what I understand, one doesn’t simply watch or observe when on acid; you go on a trip.
Allen co-writes, directs and stars in this goofball gem, where he plays a corporate product testing drone. Relatively content with his position, if lonely and a tad horny (yes, horny), his life is turned for a loop when an attractive young woman comes to his apartment door, asking for a petition signature. Immediately entranced, Allen gets involved in “subversive” protests and “communist” meetings, only to go through a most honest (to a fault) breakup. While I can buy that this Woody (no pun intended) would think more with his loins than his mind, it’s almost hard to believe that he — knowing his schtick — would fall into the world of activist politics, JUST for romance. At least, not without some reservations. In Bananas, he’s pretty gung ho though timid, finding a place amongst those being hit with fire hoses and struck by cops.
In a depressive state, he takes a trip to a small Latin American country, which has just gone through a coup in the opening of the film, and the great Howard Cosell provides play by play for the assassination and takeover. This won’t be Cosell’s only appearance, as he does return for more “action” in the end. These segments initially feel juvenile, perhaps belonging in a B-level Leslie Nielsen feature. However, upon conclusion, they help form a cohesive sense of time and place despite, in spite and because of the incoherent nature of the narrative’s atmosphere.
As Bananas moves on to the nation of San Marcos — where Woody finds himself the center of a propaganda conspiracy AND rebellious revolt — the movie dives headfirst into a bonkers escapade of circumstance and setting. Shot and set in the late 60s/early 70s, Bananas is, I’m surprised to say, not usually mentioned as a generational film (which is to suggest that it describes an era and what it felt like to be in love during that era). While it may not be covered wall to wall with music, symbols or even colors of that time, Allen’s observations, assertions and scenarios reflect upon a period that included national outrage, tumultuous movements and, most of all, strange behavior.
Allen is playing Don Quixote here, except the fantasy he lives in is real, and the reality he wants is fantasy. America is long past the point of no return, everything is slapstick and all is permitted. The windmills he tilts at aren’t perceived monsters, but monstrous insanity. And his tilting is done through mockery, minus superiority. He engages with the craziness, but often will mention the loopiness of the moment, even and especially at his own expense. Self deprecation goes a long way towards bringing people down to Earth level, but it’s mostly done up in Bananas for Allen’s own comedic benefit, suggesting something peculiar about his own personality and psychosis — which, I’ll leave to medical professionals to determine.
Being struck on this film (so to speak), I would best describe Bananas as taking benadryl while reading about existentialism. You’re not quite stoned, just a little buzzed, and awfully confused. But, there’s a sense of joyful whimsy and hopeless affection. Too cartoony? Perhaps. Maybe the Nixon age was like that, though. Maybe the best way to counter ridiculousness is with ridiculousness. It’s like aiming a mirror at a problem, while on a drive. On this trip, however, be warned of the reflection in the rear view; it might be closer than it appears.
Bill Arceneaux (@billreviews) is an independent film critic from New Orleans, and a member of SEFCA.