Was Woody Allen always self-indulgent?  I’m afraid so.  But in “Bananas,” his desire to make people laugh is at war with his desire to be the center of attention, and when the stand-up comic wins, the movie takes off in delightful directions.

The opening of “Bananas” is one such moment.  There you have two sportscasters, Don Dunphy and Howard Cossell, narrating a coup d’état in some Latin American country.

Dunphy:  We’ve seen a series of colorful riots that started with the traditional bombing of the American embassy – a ritual as old as the city itself.

Cossell:  It’s he… it’s El Presidente waving at the crowd. A shot rings out! He turns… he runs back toward the building, trying to get in. This crowd is going wild. He’s caught in a crossfire of bullets. And down! It’s over! It’s all over for El Presidente!

Allen’s melding of Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick with Marx Brothers’ repartee — both leavened with Borscht Belt humor — doesn’t really come together.  It’s more a series of episodes than a movie, but every so often there’s a flash of brilliance.  The black woman playing J. Edgar Hoover in the courtroom scene (“l have many enemies and l rarely go out unless l’m in disguise…”).  The crowd of Hasidic Jews mistakenly brought in to fight the revolutionaries, marching down one of the city’s streets brandishing collection boxes.  The scene where Allen orders sandwiches for the entire rebel army in some out-of-the-way Latin American café (“Tuna fish.  436 on white, 357 on whole wheat…”).

Unfortunately, most of the episodes go on too long.  You keep waiting for the next flash of brilliance, but you’ve got to sit through a fair amount of self-indulgent drek before it comes along.  Same goes for Allen’s career, if you want my opinion.

(21 January 2011)