BANANAS (1971)

One-line review: Woody Allen’s bloodless coup with laughter.

When I rewatched Bananas, I was surprised at how good Woody Allen is with physical comedy, an underutilized part of his acting prowess. Bananas is one of those rare films (Sleeper is another) where we see Allen at his peak with verbal and physical comedy. It may not be an Allen classic, but its countless laugh-out-loud and now iconic stand-alone comedy scenes make it imminently rewatchable. 

The film is a satire on the US-Cuba relations in the seventies. Woody Allen plays the underachiever Fielding Mellish (both his parents are surgeons), a product tester obsessed with women, who mostly rebuff him. One evening, a social activist Nancy (a superb and sultry Louise Lasser), knocks at Mellish’s door. She is collecting signatures in support of the rebels in the Latin American republic of San Marcos, where Gen Molina Vargas has taken over after assassinating the earlier President. Mellish and Nancy have an affair, and he participates in many protests to impress her, coming under the FBI’s radar for being a communist. Nancy still breaks up with him because he lacks something she cannot put her finger on. Determined to prove her wrong, Mellish takes a flight to San Marcos to show his support for the rebels.

Mellish does not fathom the power an American citizen has to bring international attention to the rebels there. He soon finds him amid a crossfire between the General and the rebels and joins the rebels. After Gen Vargas is overthrown, the rebel leader, Esposito, becomes predictably dictatorial (his orders include declaring Swedish as the new national language and ordering the citizens to wear their underwear outside). The other rebels now turn to Mellish as their new leader. On his mission to the US in disguise as the President of San Marcos, the FBI realizes he is Mellish. Mellish is arrested and tried, but eventually, all ends well. Mellish and Nancy marry, and the film ends with a live coverage of their marriage’s consummation by noted reporter Howard Cossell playing himself. 

This is not a spoiler because the film relies on laughs than the plot (although the plot is solid). It’s a gag-a-minute caper scurrying in all directions. The ensemble cast (with some unforgettable faces) assembled by legendary casting director Marion Dougherty (Allen’s long-term casting director Juliet Taylor was her assistant) delivers many of the funny lines. The anticipation of who will surprise you with the next funny line is exciting in itself. Cinematographer Andrew Costikyan remembers being impressed with Allen’s work ethic of having double the jokes of what could be shot. In keeping with the mood of the film, the film avoids showing any blood, although we see assassinations, gun fights, and even public executions. But the scenes are still convincing, as is the scene of the impoverished musicians of San Marcos playing without instruments. Such is Allen’s and his cast’s genius. 

Everyone seems to be having a good time in the film. Who wouldn’t when you can deliver such zingers? Although Allen carries much of the weight of the performances, the rest of the cast sprint breathlessly by his side, aided by Marvin Hamlisch’s rollicking title score (was it the inspiration for Carter Burwell’s title score in Raising Arizona?). Even the characters without any dialogue shine. Sylvester Stallone also appears in a cameo as a subway thug and almost didn’t get the part because Allen thought he looked too cute. See the link below to find out the hilarious story of how Sly prevailed. Allen and co-writer Mikey Rose pull off the impossible feat of tying the numerous subplots and characters into a cohesive laugh fest.

But under the silliness, Bananas is political satire at its finest. 

Woody Allen and Sly discuss how Sly got the part in Bananas. The video is superbly edited.

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