An insecure, self-reflexive Jewish comedian obsessed with death, Alvy is a clear stand-in for filmmaker Woody Allen. He is introduced in stark close-up, giving a humorous confessional in a tweed getup that mimics Allen’s usual style of dress and performance. Alvy’s occupation, location, and personal idiosyncrasies resemble those of Allen, making it hard to distinguish the filmmaker/actor from his protagonist. As a fifteen-year veteran of psychoanalysis, Alvy frequently looks to past events to explain his present actions. He became a nihilist at the age of nine after reading that the universe is expanding and suffered criticism as a child for acting on early sexual impulses and kissing a female classmate. These flashbacks set up Alvy as a pessimist who has little luck with sex or relationships. He also almost immediately refers to what he considers the primary joke of his adult life: “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” All of these themes—Alvy’s pessimism, self-loathing, and failure to succeed in love—are established within the first ten minutes of Annie Hall.
Although Alvy’s self-deprecating quick wit and intimacy with the viewer establish him as an endearing character, his irksome qualities are evident, too. He is anal (“a polite word for what you are,” Annie says), neurotic, overbearing, insecure, aggressive, domineering, pretentious, and unusually averse to unfamiliar situations and places. Often, his actions are counterintuitive: he rejects the “intellectual” Manhattan community of which he is a part; he travels across the country to L.A. to participate in a television awards show, and then chickens out; he encourages Annie to sing until she gets noticed; he is not attracted to women who are attracted to him. He is aware and indulgent of his angst, cracking jokes about it constantly. Because Alvy is driven by the notion that art can revise life, he allows fantasy to enter his narrative throughout the film. As Alvy says after directing a rehearsal of his play that is based on his relationship with Annie: “You’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life.” Allen, who based the film on his failed relationship with Diane Keaton, clearly would agree.
When Alvy first meets Annie, she is awkward and nervous, somewhat airheaded, and tells herself via subtitles to “hang in there” because she’s not smart enough for him. Originally from the Midwest, Annie feels somewhat lost in and intimidated by the intellectual atmosphere of New York City. Nonetheless, she has already hopped on the therapy bandwagon and joined a sports club. Her self-consciousness about her Chippewa Falls upbringing is magnified by Alvy’s propensity to make fun of it. Annie allows herself to be steered along Alvy’s path, tolerating books on death and four-hour-long foreign films about the Holocaust, but by the end of their relationship, her confidence and independence have grown exponentially. She begins to accuse Alvy of thinking she’s not smart enough, thereby suggesting that she knows her intelligence matches his. She becomes so independent, in fact, that upon their split she quickly moves to Los Angeles to pursue a singing career. Annie’s transformation is substantial, giving the film a Pygmalion-like storyline in which Annie blossoms under Alvy’s influence—so much so that eventually she doesn’t need him anymore.
The film plays out much like a tribute to Diane Keaton. Whereas Alvy’s idiosyncrasies become tiresome at points in the film, Annie is nearly always a likeable character. When Alvy goes out to California to woo her back with a desperate marriage proposal, Annie is happy and thriving and her polite refusal is practically a relief. Annie has solidified her identity and no longer allows Alvy to push her around in his neurotic fashion. She has struck out on her own and no longer pines for Alvy as she did after their first break-up, when her ego was still fragile and underdeveloped. The last few moments in the film celebrate Annie with vignettes and sweeping music, and the title of course signifies that she is the main figure of the film. Stepping out of the fiction of the film into its reality, it’s clear that Allen’s romance with Diane Keaton left a lasting impression on him. The film encourages us to fall in love with Keaton just as Alvy falls in love with Annie. It worked—women wholeheartedly adopted the “Annie Hall” look in 1977, and the film has become a classic.
Rob, an actor, serves as the voice of sanity that balances the turmoil of Alvy’s angst. He is Alvy’s best friend and his venting ground. The mirror image of Alvy, Rob is refreshingly mellow and superficial, and his presence in the film provides a relief to Alvy’s constant paranoia and insecurity. Rob enjoys normal activities like playing tennis, basking in the sun, and dating women and indulges few quirks or psychodramas. Unlike Alvy, Rob seems to have a healthy, optimistic grasp on the world. But while he is amused by and accepting of his friend’s idiosyncrasies, he doesn’t necessarily understand them. When Alvy and Annie split up for the first time, Rob tries to help the situation by setting Alvy up with Pam, an extremely thin music journalist interested in mysticism who is entirely wrong for Alvy. When Rob moves to L.A., Alvy is appalled that Rob welcomes the glamour and superficiality of L.A., the city that is endlessly battered by Alvy’s snide cracks. Nonetheless, throughout the film, Rob is Alvy’s loyal sidekick and comes through for him anytime he is in a jam. The two enjoy a comfortable familiarity, calling each other “Max” in a running inside joke, but neither really understands the other. Nonetheless, they don’t really need to understand each other to enjoy each other’s company.