These old Woody Allen films are pretty delightful: intelligent slapstick overflowing with enough word plays and sight gags that the viewer might do well to hit “pause” while laughing so as not to miss another doozy. Woody seems to thrive on social commentary after being ripped out of his natural habitat, which somehow puts him in his element. In Sleeper, this happened when cryogenic preservation brought him into the distant future. Before Sleeper, here in Bananas, it happens after being sort-of kidnapped by revolutionary rebels in the socialistic/fascist nation of “San Marcos.” One of the best bits from Sleeper and one of the best from Bananas both poke wonderful fun at the phenomenon of sports, which seems to have been one of Woody’s big targets when he was a bit younger. (Now, consider how seriously he takes tennis as an existential illustration in Match Point.) Bananas begins with sportscasters, one of whom is the real Howard Cosell, offering sports commentary on the overthrow of San Marcos’ government through the assassination of its president. Cosell even attempts to interview the fallen leader and capture his dying words while gasping for breath on the steps of the country’s government seat. What may be largely a comedy routine still manages to carry biting ramifications on the nature of the news media, pretentiously neutral even in the most obvious of crises, sensationalizing the tragic and emptying the grave of all its gravity. (Sleeper‘s comment on sports takes place when a futuristic historian asks Woody’s character to make sense of a sports broadcast, guessing that the footage must have been used to punish society’s most grievous criminals. Woody replies, of course, with, “Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what that was.”
It’s more than just a commentary on sports and the media, though. Perhaps more than that, it seems to satirize the spectacle-ization of the “other,” the “third-world,” or just “them.” There’s always something funny about revolutions, as Woody Allen knows well. Can’t recall him ever specifically mocking the French Revolution, for example, but he may as well have. But what’s funny about the French Revolution is different from what’s funny about the Cuban or Argentinian revolutions. With the latter, North Americans (rather literally) look down upon still-developing nations wrestling with Marxist ideas and extreme poverty and unrest. “If only they knew what we know,” is the idea. By putting it in the context of a sports event, it becomes something for our entertainment, something trivial and ultimately insignificant. Perhaps most sadly, Bananas illustrates the effect of this outlook on the nations themselves. Needing a “legitimate” leader for their revolution, the people of San Marcos end up enlisting Allen’s character Fielding Mellish (excellent name), not unlike the Arabs enlisted T.E. Lawrence. Fielding’s own ineptitude doesn’t help the cause, broken and impotent man than he is, but at least he’s got more going for him than the revolutionaries. For them, “Something’s missing,” but they can’t figure out what. They live a life of constant discontent just like Fielding, but they’re defined by idiotic optimism rather than Fielding’s (Allen’s) intellectual fatalism.
Some of Woody’s more self-deprecating humor now feels anything but funny now, when considered in light of his own biography. His character’s sex addiction (or something like it) reminds one of the sad and pathetic problems the real Woody has had. It must be admitted, though, that the snake bite scene in Bananas is genuinely hilarious. Woody is always above revolutions like he’s above science and sports; these are dead ends at best and steps back in the evolutionary process at worst. He is willing to sign any petition if it offers the chance to get cozy with the lady revolutionary. He’s successful in the short run, but her “something’s missing” worldview applies to her relationship with Fielding; that is, until the final consummation of the film and their relationship. At that point Howard Cosell reappears to offer a play-by-play of their romp with following interviews.