“He’s a raving lunatic, and incompetent,” cries Hal (Williams), a studio head at Galaxy Pictures. “He’s not incompetent,” replies Ellie (Leoni), a producer at Galaxy, as she champions her choice for director of Galaxy’s new project. The would-be director? Val Waxman (Allen), a formerly venerated auteur whose endless neuroses and psychoses have made him a dwindling flicker on the industry radar screen. He is also Ellie’s ex-husband. And Hal, the exec who holds the purse strings, is Ellie’s new lover, and the man she chose over Val. Therein lies the dilemma.
Ellie goes to bat for Val, Hal relents, and Val reluctantly accepts the high-budget film, sacrificing his pride in the hopes that the new picture will resuscitate his career. But, in true Allen-esque form, Val is struck with a psychosomatic episode of blindness on the first day of shooting. Now, not only must he direct a picture he can’t see, but he must also convince everyone around him—especially Hal—that nothing is wrong. If the film is a failure, Val’s career is the price.
Such is the framework for Woody Allen’s newest film, Hollywood Ending. Daring to do what few filmmakers of repute have done, Mr. Allen aims his satiric crosshairs at Hollywood with this film. “It’s about time,” you may be shouting—believe me, I agree. Allen’s disdain for the gilded town and its woeful ways are no secret. Who better to cast a stone than one of the very few truly independent filmmakers? And at such a huge target, too. But, disappointingly, it is a huge target that Allen misses.
When we first meet Val, he’s almost hidden beneath the blanket of a Canadian snowstorm—the location of the commercial he is shooting. Of course, shooting a commercial in Canada is a fate worse than castration to Val’s unbound snobbery. While complaining into his cell phone (“They have moose here.”), Allen extends his assault beyond mere Hollywood, to its entire system.
He attacks Canada, no doubt, as a way to get back at filmmakers who have abandoned the States (and New York in particular) for cheaper locations to the north. With slings and arrows directed at Peter Bogdanovich—who represents the comatose state of highbrow, American art films—and at talent agents “who will do anything” for the dollar, Val brings out the darkest in Allen. Unfortunately, the darkest in Allen is certainly predictable, but not terribly funny.
The movie is permeated with the feel of an old Howard Hawks screwball comedy. This film has the screwball, but where’s the comedy? Don’t get me wrong, Allen’s dialogue still provokes frequent cackles, but they are surrounded by the buffoonery of sight-gags as Val stumbles blindly through the shooting of his film. I love a good fall a la Chevy Chase as much as the next guy. Still, I prefer to see such mindless physical comedy on “SNL”, not as it chews its way through the works of an otherwise mediocre Allen film. And I hate to tell you this, but there aren’t many more sight-gag chuckles than those found in the trailer anyway.
The few other moments that seem full of comedic potential fall to overkill as well. The banter between Val and his temporary fling, Lori (Messing), lacks the Allen wit. Though Messing’s self-indicting portrayal of the wind-up doll, gym-addicted girlfriend is refreshing, the jokes surrounding their relationship somehow fall flat at the feet of misogyny.
Once or twice, the needle on my handheld humor-meter did wobble up into the range of some of Allen’s past work. When Val goes blind, he must have a “secret agent” on the set: a crew member Val can trust not only to keep the blindness a secret, but who helps Val feign his way through directorial duties. Now, Val’s previously eccentric decision to hire a Chinese director of photography comes in handy. Val, and his terribly deadpan agent (Rydell), recruit the translator to their side.
Eventually, the translator—a Japanese business student from NYU —injects a fresh, sardonic dimension to the plot by beginning to subtly affect the creative process (think Palminteri in Bullets Over Broadway). But Allen writes the translator character out of the film too quickly, and I found myself missing the laudable comedy that he provided. And as the circle of those who know Val’s secret grows, the absurdities begin to outmatch the wit, and the film begins to seem like “artistic masturbation.”
But the shell is not without its pearl. Leoni manifests a leading lady of such astounding romantic stature in Ellie that the actress’ winsome and subtle technique proves itself the invaluable commodity I have always claimed it to be. Ellie’s firmness, sweetened by intelligence and calm, give Leoni command of the screen—even when she shares it with Allen. I know now: Îf I can’t have Diane Keaton, I want Tea Leoni.
Aside from the fact that it lacks the Allen ingenuity and wit of old, with the help of Leoni’s performance, I expect to hear quite a bit more about this film. The 66-year-old Allen, who has never been one for promoting his films in person, has agreed to step out for this one. Just days after surprising the industry with his appearance at the Academy Awards, Allen announced that Hollywood Ending would open the Cannes Film Festival this year. So, we can put down the career obituary we’ve been writing for Allen since Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, because the prospects for this film seem brighter. As Val says when his horribly confused film is revered in the Paris press, “Thank God for the French.”
Ultimately, it will be the dedicated Allen fans, who refuse to turn their backs on the father of American independent film, who will sing praises about this one. I’m the type to call it as I see it—all history aside. The way I see it: Allen, a purely cerebral artist, should never have reduced himself to the physical comedy and caustic criticism of Hollywood found in this film. The implausible situations eat away at the narrative, and the acting (aside from Leoni) is astoundingly weak—everyone seeming to merely bump up against their characters for a moment, but little more.
If you can ignore Allen’s pitiful portrayal of blindness (he doesn’t even look toward the voices of the other characters), the static camera that only heightens the stagnancy of the lame physical comedy, and the fact that this is Allen’s attempt at a “nice, middle of the road commercial picture,” then you may be able to endure this film. Still, a bad Allen film is better than most of the films out there. And though they come forced and often without Allen’s former wit, the laughs from the one-liners are still present. But as Ellie ironically notes in the first scene, these “laughs are not enough.”