The romantic comedy Play It Again, Sam is significant for two very specific reasons: It’s one of only two ’70s movies that Woody Allen acted in but did not direct, and it’s the first screen collaboration between Allen and his definitive ’70s leading lady, Diane Keaton. Adapted by Allen from his own stage play of the same name and directed by the always-elegant Herbert Ross, Play It Again, Sam is a silly trifle about a nebbish who falls in love with his best friend’s wife while receiving advice from an imaginary version of movie icon Humphrey Bogart. The contrast between geeky little Allen and suave, trenchcoat-wearing Bogie (played by Jerry Lacy) is consistently amusing, and the chemistry between Allen and Keaton, who play simpatico neurotics, is terrific. So, even though the movie is never laugh-out-loud funny and even though the story gets overly mechanical toward the end, Play It Again, Sam goes down smoothly.
Set in San Francisco, the picture stars Allen as Allan, a film critic whose wife, Nancy (Susan Anspach), just left him. Allan finds comfort in the company of his pal Dick (Tony Roberts), a self-involved businessman, and Dick’s amiable but high-strung wife, Linda (Keaton). As Dick and Linda try again and again to connect Allan with new women—most of the blind dates go disastrously bad—Allan daydreams that his favorite tough-guy movie star, Bogart, has materialized to offer romantic advice. This culminates in a complex scene of Allan putting the moves on Linda while arguing with Bogie, who pushes Allan to act more aggressively. Shtick ensues. Giving the sort of super-invested, almost desperate comic performance that marked his earliest films, Allen relies as much on physical slapstick as he does on his trademark wit—and while the trope of Allen bumping into walls and knocking over tables gets tired, his one-liners are great. (“I was incredible last night in bed—I never once had to look up and consult the manual.”)
From a writing perspective, Allen does a great job of “opening up” the play, using cross-cutting and multiple locations to make the piece feel completely cinematic. Concurrently, Ross finds clever ways to slip the Bogart character into and out of scenes. It all basically works until the end, when Allen twists the story in knots so he can stage a riff on the final scene of Casablanca (1942). (The real thing appears during the opening scene of Play It Again, Sam, when Allan watches Casablanca In a theater.) This forced climax lacks the effortlessness that distinguishes the rest of the film, but it was probably the best means of paying off the whole Bogart angle. Flaws aside, Play It Again, Sam is quasi-essential viewing for ’70s-cinema fans, because a year after this picture was released, Allen and Keaton reteamed for Sleeper (1973), the first in the five Allen-directed ’70s movies they made together. In other words—and you knew this was coming, didn’t you?—Play It Again, Sam was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Play It Again, Sam: GROOVY