There isn’t a single thing to recommend about Crisis in Six Scenes, Woody Allen’s startlingly terrible new comedy on Amazon. Even by the diminished standards of Allen’s late career, Crisis is barely thought through, inattentively directed, and remarkably disengaged. In the opening scene, his character’s cultural-critic barber (Max Casella) calls TV “lowbrow compared to a book.” With Crisis, Allen — who reportedly doesn’t watch any television (and didn’t know what a streaming service was before Amazon came knocking, since he also doesn’t own a computer) — seemingly does all he can to make his condescending opinion of television a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Set against the political turbulence of the ’60s, Crisis feels like being trapped in a dusty museum with outdated exhibits and a rambling, stammering docent who doesn’t seem to have left the premises in years. Allen plays — surprise! — a version of himself: a crusty, high-strung novelist and political “ostrich” named Sidney who keep his head buried while the rest of the world roils in riots, protests, and war. His marriage-counselor wife, Kay (Elaine May), cheerfully accepts being stifled by her husband’s stubborn routines instead of rushing off to take part in demonstrations like she wants to. The elderly couple are thrilled to replicate their life of material ease and polite progressivism with Alan (John Magaro) and Ellie (Rachel Brosnahan), college-age sweethearts engaged to be married whom Sidney introduced to one another.
Flurrying into this diorama of airless domesticity is political radical Lenny (Miley Cyrus in a cheap wig from an old Hannah Montana costume), a self-styled revolutionary wanted by the authorities for robbing banks and bombing a draft board. An utterly incoherent character, Lenny seems to exist solely so that Allen has a target for his decades-old grievances against hippies and pacifist activism. “I went to the draft board and I threw up,” says the cowardly Sidney of his own aborted military career, adding the sub-Catskills twist: “[It] was the sight of all those naked men.” When Lenny isn’t being treated like a punching bag, she’s made into a pinup girl. “You’re even prettier in person,” Alan tells her when they first meet (as if that’s remotely appropriate for even a Mad Men–era dweeb to say to a dangerous fugitive). “Your photographs, they don’t even come close to doing you justice. You’re beautiful!”
There’s plenty of satire that could be mined from the outsized role that glamour and charisma play in political engagement. But Crisis is itself too taken by its manic pixie dream shiksa’s allure to critique it. (Lenny also boasts of having slept with “a black,” in a Trumpian head-scratcher of a line that doesn’t make any sense for the supposedly worldly character.) The closest that Crisis comes to saying something relevant is Allen’s parody of revolutionary thinking as a bourgeois fad, when Kay’s book club reads Mao (one woman pronounces it “mayo”) and they all agree that Mao jackets are just so elegant, because Allen will only put older women in his projects if he can call them stupid, I guess.
The iconic filmmaker wrote and directed all six episodes, which slowly find Sidney exposed to the two things he hates most: ideas contrary to his own and disruptions to his fusty habits. It’s dispiriting to see Kay light up with the possibility that she might do something meaningful in the final chapters of her life, only to be told by her husband that her grandmotherly status means she should focus on hip replacements, not the state of humanity’s future. We’re supposed to find Sidney an ultimately sympathetic curmudgeon, at least according to the epiphany in the finale episode that resolves the problem we didn’t even know he had. But from start to finish, he’s intolerable and asphyxiating in a way I don’t think Crisis intends.
It doesn’t help that the performances are stilted and unconvincing pretty much across the board, with Allen and May under-emoting and Cyrus wearing a waxen mask of crazy eyes and a perpetually open mouth. Lenny and Sidney bicker constantly while she’s waiting for the right time to make her flight to Cuba, at one point quarreling about whether his hot-fudge maker makes him a capitalist stooge or not. It’s exactly as pettifogging and as pseudo-intellectual as it sounds — a gift, perhaps, for masochistic Allen completists who’ve decided they’re OK continuing to support his work despite Dylan Farrow’s assault allegations. But there’s no other reason to watch a tetchy old man justifying his kitchen-appliance purchases to a young woman he loathes while the world burns around them.