Woody Allen’s Bananas draws on the 1970s political climate, with references to student radical movements, Latin American revolutions and the political instability of the banana republics. It also follows in the tradition of the anarchic films of W.C. Fields and, most notably, those of the Marx Brothers (such as Duck Soup). Furthermore, one may link it to the naturalist satire of the EC Comics of the 1950’s and the surrealism of the Warner Bros. cartoons.
In Bananas, Allen plays Fielding Mellish, a man who works as a tester for ridiculous products (shades of Charles Chaplin’s losing battle with machines in Modern Times) and lives a banal existence. In an attempt to woo Nancy (Louise Lasser), a political activist who shows up at his door collecting signatures for a petition against American friendship with the dictator of San Marcos (a fictional South American country on the brink of revolution), he becomes a political activist himself, attending rallies and even travelling to San Marcos. There, he will join a band of rebels and even become president, returning to the United States in a ridiculous red beard and military getup (mimicking Fidel Castro) to promote trade with his new country.
The film moves at rapid-fire pacing, during which the narrative is at the service of the gags. None of the events affect the characters in a realistic way. Bananas is a surrealistic and cartoonish type of comedy; bits and pieces held together by its protagonist. Despite Allen’s commitment to making this film as funny as possible, Bananas is also incredibly rich with Tolstoy-like commentaries on the inevitability of history, and observations on the propaganda of popular culture, textbooks and newscasters. All this is clearly shown by the film’s introductory sequence, depicting a play-by-play reportage of the assassination of the president of San Marcos on the popular American television sports program The Wild World of Sports.
Some of the elements of the movie resonate to this day. One, its depiction of terrorism as driven by selfish needs rather than ideological beliefs. These selfish needs are also, significantly, sexual, therefore Freudian. Two, one of the delights of the movie is seeing Allen’s famous neurotic personal outside of an urban landscape. Three, it may be argued that Allen’s greatest works perfectly capture the essence of its time. Unlike later works by Allen, that are often set in the past, Bananas seems to record a cultural moment for posterity – not so much by documenting it, but by immortalizing its essence and even intelligently predicting some of the aspects of popular culture that would seem laughable in later years. – ★★★★
BANANAS || 1971, USA || Comedy || Directed by – Woody Allen / Produced by – Jack Grossberg / Written by – Woody Allen, Mickey Rose / Cinematography – Andrew M. Costikyan / Edited by – Ron Kalish, Ralph Rosenblum / Music by – Marvin Hamlisch / Starring – Woody Allen, Louis Lasser, Carlos Montalban, Natividad Abascal / Running time: 82 mins.