"Shadows and Fog'' opens with the strains of a tune from the Weill-Brecht musical "The Threepenny Opera.'' But don't worry Allen hasn't gone Brecht on us.
Instead, "Shadows and Fog'' is another installment in his fable comedies that began with 1983's "Zelig'' and include "Broadway Danny Rose,'' "The Purple Rose of Cairo'' and "Alice.'' Although it never reaches the hilarity or conceptual coherence of "Purple Rose'' or "Zelig,'' it's diverting cinema.
Allen here plays Kleinman, a Kafkaesque everyman a mousy clerk who keeps sputtering royal labels at his boss. In the middle of a densely foggy night, a group of his friends awaken him from a deep sleep and summon him out on the trail of a serial killer (Michael Kirby).
They tell him he must follow the Plan, but of course they fail to tell him what the plan is. He is left to bumble around a European village, running into a series of problems and people along the way.
THE CARNIVAL is in town, too, and Allen brings us into the cart of a sword swallower named Irmy (Mia Farrow) and a clown (John Malkovich) who debate having a child Farrow wants one, but Malkovich says it will interfere with his art. Farrow later catches the clown with Marie, a trapeze artist (Madonna), an event that sets Irmy off running into town.
She ends up in a brothel, where she engages in a philosophical discussion of love and sex with the prostitutes (Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates and Anne Lange). There, a student (John Cusack) offers her an astronomical amount of money to sleep with her, and she accepts.
Most of the action then flows from Irmy's and Kleinman's plight they eventually join forces. Kleinman constantly gets quizzed about his philosophy of life, and dark forces in the town start to move against him.
THERE ARE allusions to the Holocaust, communism, fascism and Kafka's stories. In the end, art conquers evil at least for a moment.
Despite its periodic leaps into the comic highs Allen is famous for, "Shadows and Fog'' is essentially a mood piece. Shot in a film studio in Queens, N.Y., the film is all shadows and fog, thanks to production designer Santo Loquasto and photography director Carlo Di Palma. Allen's expertice with creating exotic camera angles increases even more with this effort.
Unfortunately, Allen's thought is somewhat foggy as well. The film resembles a one-act play he wrote several years ago called "Death''; that script has a lot more coherence. He seems to be making a statement against the nihilism that the student expounds and the dogmatism that the vigilantes exhibit as well.
THERE'S AN intense sequence where a doctor (Donald Pleasence) who thinks he can find the scientific cause of evil, gets killed Allen describes the irrationality of existence.
Of the all-star cast, Cusack and Malkovich stand out, particularly in a scene where Cusack, as the student, begins to describe sleeping with Irmy. Foster, who is sardonic as a prostitute, gets a mind-bending bedroom scene with Allen. Farrow's role is much the same as in Allen's other fable films. As always, Allen treats each actor and actress with respect and care.
Allen has made great films, good films and bad films, but at least he makes films about people and about ideas. "Shadows and Fog'' falls in the category of good film, and it's worth a trip into the foggy night.