We're just going to give it to you straight: When it comes to relationships, Alvy Singer is kind of a mess. He's neurotic, he's insecure, and, sometimes, he has a little trouble separating reality from fantasy. In other words, he's just like you and us. Nobody's perfect, and Alvy's faults make him not only a believable romantic comedy character, but also a thoroughly modern one.
There Ain't No Party Like an Alvy Party… Because an Alvy Party Doesn't Exist
Throughout the movie, Alvy is a man on a mission. Namely, he wants to figure out why he and Annie broke up, and he offers up one reason right away: his self-diagnosed anhedonia. What's that? It's a fancy way of saying that nothing gives Alvy pleasure. (Brain snack—it was also the original title of the movie.)
According to Alvy, the joke he tells at the very beginning of the film—you know, the one about the two women at the Catskills resort who complain not only about the food's terrible taste, but also its small portions—sums up his feelings about life. For Alvy, life is divided up into two categories: horrible and miserable.
ALVY: I feel that life is divided up into the horrible and the miserable. Those are the two categories, you know. The horrible would be like, um, I don't know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, cripples. I don't know how they get through life. It's amazing to me. And, you know, the miserable is everyone else. So when you go through life, you should be thankful that you're miserable, because you're very lucky to be miserable.
He's a walking Hallmark card, this guy.
Socially, Alvy's anhedonia keeps him on the bench. He's perpetually anxious and always reluctant to participate. When his BFF Rob lands a sweet sitcom gig in Los Angeles, Alvy doesn't visit until he has an award show to attend—and he doesn't even end up going to that. You'd think a few palm trees and some sunshine would do Alvy good; instead, he spends his entire time in L.A. making fun of it:
ALVY: I'm at the Los Angeles airport. I flew in. I flew in to see you. Hey, listen, can we not debate this on, on the telephone because, you know, I, I feel that I got a temperature and I'm getting my chronic Los Angeles nausea again. I don't feel so good.
Alvy's inability to let loose also puts some major strain on his relationship with Annie. For example, when Tony Lacey invites Alvy and Annie to a celebrity-filled party after Annie's second nightclub performance, Alvy says nope and makes up an excuse. It doesn't matter that Annie's riding high after her stellar singing and totally wants to go. Alvy's not down to party. Alvy feels about parties the way that you feel about going to the orthodontist.
His Way or the Henry Hudson Parkway
Anhedonia's not the only cannonball that sinks Alvy's relationship with Annie. In fact, it's not even the only reason that Alvy doesn't want to take Annie to Tony's party. As Annie gets more and more successful, Alvy gets increasingly resentful. What gives? Shouldn't he be stoked by his girlfriend's success? Of course he should, but Alvy wants Annie all to himself. He wants, as he says, "the whole thing." So when Annie's music career starts to take off, Alvy feels left out.
Alvy's a dude who needs to be in control. You know, the kind of guy who replaces his girlfriend's books with ones he thinks she should read (and that all have the word "death" in the title). The kind of guy who thinks his girlfriend should keep her own apartment when she moves in with him so he—oops, we mean they—have a life raft out of the relationship if he/they need it. The kind of guy who can't handle his girlfriend getting high before sex… because it means that her pleasure won't be all because of him:
ALVY: It ruins it for me if you have grass because, you know, I'm like a comedian, so if I get a laugh from a person who's high, it doesn't count, you know, because they're always laughing.
As Jason Fraley of The Film Spectrum points out, Alvy's smothering of Annie is even represented visually. When Alvy and Annie visit their respective therapists and we see them in split-screen, Alvy's part of the screen dwarfs Annie's. We see him stretched out on a couch, and we see his therapist. Annie's therapist, on the other hand, is out of the picture, and we see Annie on her own. The more independent Annie gets, the more insecure Alvy gets.
Fact vs. Fiction
So what's a guy to do if he can't control reality? Create elaborate fantasies, that's what. Alvy tells us at the start of the movie that he has a little trouble separating fact from fiction. What he means is, he bends reality in order to make it better—like when he produces Marshall McLuhan at the movie theater to take down the pretentious professor. "Boy, if only life could be like this," Alvy says. We have to give it to him—that would be pretty sweet.
Alvy doesn't just use his reality-warping powers to overcome obnoxious people in line for the movies, though. He also uses fantasy to work through his problems with Annie. After they have a sidewalk fight in which he accuses her of sleeping with one of her teachers, Alvy's so preoccupied with Annie that he imagines everybody else on the street is, too; then they can all chime in with advice on his love life.
Ultimately, Alvy uses art and imagination to rewrite the ending of his and Annie's romantic relationship. In reality, he flies to Los Angeles and she rejects his marriage proposal and plea to return to New York. In the play that Alvy writes, though, Annie's still in love with him, comes back to The Big Apple, and they live happily ever after.
Alvy says to the audience:
ALVY: What do you want? It was my first play. You know… how you're always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it's real difficult in life?
Alvy didn't like the end of his and Annie's story… so he changed it.
It's interesting to note that he also asks the audience to forgive him for the romantic rewrite just described. Here's why: Through all of his neuroses, insecurities, and elaborate fantasies, Alvy retains self-awareness. He knows he's a hot mess.
And it's because of that that he ultimately manages to solve the mystery of why he and Annie are splitsville: As Roger Ebert tidily sums up in his Great Movies review, Alvy "found happiness, but couldn't accept it."