Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Woody Allen, George Hamilton, Erica Leerhsen, Tèa Leoni, Debra Messing, Mark Rydell, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Mark Webber, Treat Williams, Scott Wolf
I shy away from any bold proclamations like “Woody Allen isn’t funny,” for a couple of reasons. One, lots of people think he is, and just because he doesn’t make me laugh that much, doesn’t mean he isn’t funny. And sometimes he does make me laugh, but his average of movies that I’ve liked or even been interested in seeing is something like one every six years. And he makes one a year. I’m reminded of something even Neil Simon admitted was a fair review of one of his plays, “Neil Simon did not have a good idea for a play this year… but he wrote one anyway.”
The Allen films I like best (Radio Days chief among them) either do not feature Allen onscreen or do so in some other guise than the schliemel persona probably best captured in Annie Hall. There are a few schools of thought on Woody Allen and his movies, and the one in which I’m enrolled, oddly enough, is best encapsulated by a comment on The Simpsons:
Marge: Did anyone see that new Woodsy Allen movie? Ned: You know, I like his films except for that nervous fellow that’s always in them.
Hollywood Ending, however, intrigued me with its television commercials. A director with a sudden case of hysterical blindness, who must somehow manage to shoot his new film without revealing his plight? What a great idea — I imagined Allen, who maintains that he is a writer before anything else (most recently in a short interview with TV Guide) to be taking some satirical shots at the idea of the “director’s vision,” a subject I have something of a chip on my shoulder about. So I went to the theater with a hopeful heart… only to have that heart sink deeper and deeper as the film unspooled.
Just to deal with one thing as briefly as I can, if Allen indeed identifies as a writer, why and how did he make a film about a director with no vision ruining a picture… and never show and barely refer to that film’s writer or writers? Think what could have been done, either by making the writer privy to Allen’s deception and thus having more power on his film than is almost always the case in Hollywood… only to have the reviewers praise, as always, the “director’s vision.” Or even as a quick joke when Allen and his agent are trying to choose a confidante. What about the writer, Rydell could ask. NO! Allen replies forcefully. I’m not saying that either of these ideas are the equal of what Allen could have come up with, but not to deal with the subject is a sin of omission.
And then there is the evident compulsion that, even if we had not been privy to embarrassing revelations about Allen’s personal life, would still be creepy: As always, Allen casts actresses roughly half his age or less as his romantic and/or sexual interests. In this film, Tèa Leoni, Debra Messing, and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen are supposed to be his ex-wife, current girlfriend, and star of the film he is making, respectively. Neither Leoni or Messing evidence any kind of chemistry with Allen, so one is left with the uncomfortable feeling that they are kissing or otherwise with him because he wrote the script, and he says so, and he’s Woody Allen. Allen needs to find other actors to play his leads more often, and not those who will do impressions of him as Kenneth Branagh did in Celebrity. While watching the film, I found myself imagining what Jeff Goldblum could have done with the part. If Allen must appear, there is a perfectly serviceable supporting part for him in the agent played by Mark Rydell, who is fine but hardly irreplaceable. Messing does seem to be having fun with her part as an untalented bimbo actress, and Thiessen’s character, at least, is believable, she is the actress who likes to sleep with her directors. Barney Cheng, meanwhile, all but steals the film as the translator for Allen’s cameraman, who is privy to the filmmaker’s dilemma and helps him as best he can.
The problem with the central conceit of this movie is that it gives Allen, as an actor, permission never to make eye contact with his co-stars during the sequences in which he is blind. This is death when in comes to two characters communicating to and with each other. Which is not to say that blind characters cannot be presented effectively, but that Allen can’t do it, and that trying hampers him.
To resolve his story, Allen eventually falls victim to Arthur Knight’s idiot plot, coined by the critic to describe stories which depend on people being compelled to act like idiots. It must be especially tempting to do this in comedy — it is probably harder to write those with smart people — but Allen is supposed to be good at this sort of stuff. Subplots and other elements are thrown in pell-mell, as if Allen sat down at the typewriter each day and thought, “Ooh! Here’s a good idea!” without any overarching theme he wanted to examine or thing he wanted to say. When what is supposed to be the revelation of Allen’s true problem is introduced 90 minutes into a two hour movie, without having been referenced once before this, it’s a sign of a writer grasping at straws.
Then there’s the self-referential material (I know, I know, I’m a fine one to talk): Allen’s director is described as having made some funny films some 25 years ago. “Then he became a real artist.” His suggestion to shoot the film-within-the-film in black and white is brushed off, as the audience laughs knowingly.
My notes from the screening eventually devolve into the words “jackass,” “stupid,” and “imbecile.” Reader, I was describing the film and Allen’s character in it.