FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW; Allen's Ode to Theater and, as Always, New York
"THE point is, no great artist has ever been appreciated in his lifetime," opines one of the minor characters in Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway," a playwright (Rob Reiner) who says his work is "written specifically to go unproduced." Mr. Allen wrote that line about fame, but he has reason to know otherwise.
Having been appreciated ad nauseam, in every possible public light, he now considers the artist's sometimes-conflicting obligations to his work and to his conscience. In the process, he successfully reinvents himself as comic philosopher, finding wicked humor in questions of artistic life or death. One way or another, Mr. Allen has been well served by recent experience. "Bullets Over Broadway" is a bright, energetic, sometimes side-splitting comedy with vital matters on its mind, precisely the kind of sharp-edged farce he has always done best.
"Bullets Over Broadway," the first of Mr. Allen's films to be included in the New York Film Festival, will be shown tomorrow at 6 P.M. and Sunday at 1:30 P.M.
Set during Prohibition and centered on a pleasant young playwright (John Cusack) with a delusional view of his own talents, it enjoys the antics of cheerfully ridiculous stock characters while also throwing in a stunning wild card. He is a gangster named Cheech (an expertly gruff Chazz Palminteri). He happens to be more of a theatrical genius than the nice young man will ever be.
It will take David Shayne (Mr. Cusack) a long time to figure that out. Declaring himself an artist in the film's opening line, he is too proud to let compromises be made in his work. Of course, this stubbornness provides a fine comic opportunity, since the only backing that can be drummed up by David's agent (Jack Warden) comes from a gangster named Nick (Joe Viterelli). Nick has a talentless girlfriend named Olive (Jennifer Tilly). Olive has trouble remembering a line more complicated than "Charmed, charmed, charmed, charmed!" but she wants a starring role in David's play.
Also waiting in the wings is Helen Sinclair (a wonderfully funny Dianne Wiest), a scene-stealing grande dame who is a teensy bit over the hill. She is (by her own description) "some vain Broadway legend." But it's also true, in the words of her manager (Harvey Fierstein), that in recent years she's "been better known as an adulteress and a drunk, and I say that with all due respect." Helen happily drops the names of "Max" Anderson and "Gene" O'Neill at every opportunity, but she's ready to take a chance on a newcomer. She's also ready to make him rewrite his play so that it becomes more flattering to her.
During the jubilant introductory scenes to "Bullets Over Broadway," Mr. Allen has a field day with this situation. The story moves fast and features two terrific ensemble episodes, the first at Nick and Olive's madly swanky Art Deco apartment, where the color scheme is black-and-white and Olive is a vision in salmon marabou. (Kudos to Santo Loquasto's production design and Jeffrey Kurland's costumes, as usual.) Also on hand is Venus (Annie-Joe Edwards), the maid who sees no reason to mince words around Olive. When Olive later declares herself not in the mood for Nick's advances, Venus retorts: "You better get in the mood, honey, 'cause he's paying the rent."
Then there's the first rehearsal session, bringing together members of David's cast. (As a further commitment to his art, he has decided to direct.) The inflatable Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent), a matinee idol with a weight problem, arrives asking, "Would it be frightfully tiresome if I just had hot water and lemon?" He is soon sneaking cake and drumsticks every chance he gets. Eden Brent (Tracey Ullmann), an aging ingenue, arrives giddily, trilling at her lap dog.
Nobody beats Helen Sinclair when it comes to making an entrance, though. "Please forgive me!" she booms, sweeping in late for the meeting. "My pedicurist had a stroke. She fell forward onto the orange stick and plunged it into my toe, and it required bandaging." Gazing around the empty theater, Helen feels the urge to offer grandiose greetings ("Mrs. Alving! Uncle Vanya. There's Cordelia! Here's Ophelia") to the cheap seats.
The place isn't entirely deserted. Cheech is loitering in the audience, having been assigned the job of guarding Olive. Initially disgusted by the baloney coming from the stage, he begins offering informal critiques after a while. His thoughts are blunt. "You don't write like people talk," he tells David. (Mr. Allen has a fine time writing bad Broadway dialogue, by the way.)
The trouble is, Cheech is right. And the rest of "Bullets Over Broadway" ponders the disparity between David, who has studied playwriting as hard as he can, and Cheech, who instinctively knows what it's really about. The important difference between them, beyond that of talent, is ethical. David allows himself to be swayed by everyone around him. Cheech is single-minded, and he thinks a good play is, quite literally, to die for.
Mr. Allen has drawn on autobiographical specifics in other films, but this may be the one in which he speaks most seriously from the heart. Although the film seems to make pronouncements in boldface by the final scene, delivering a pat solution to one of the fundamental problems in any artist's life, there is a haunting ambiguity hanging over these closing moments. Only a nice, weak-willed writer like David would find an easy answer to the questions raised by this story. Surely that's part of the point.
Mr. Allen establishes the tougher underpinnings of "Bullets Over Broadway," which opens commercially on Oct. 14, with the disarming ease that informs his most satisfying work. As one of his more ebullient recent films, it can be watched as a deft, glossy ensemble piece with the occasional razor edge. Carlo Di Palma's camera work, blessedly steady after a couple of hand-held Allen experiments, captures a rich, affectionate vision of Broadway in its heyday. And again Mr. Allen finds new ways to love New York. When Mr. Cusack and a gorgeously costumed Ms. Wiest sit on a bench flanked by a sea of flowers, the image is so rhapsodic it's hard to believe this is Central Park.
Loving care has also gone into the nightclub musical numbers seen briefly here (with chorus girls in pagoda or skyscraper-and-martini costumes) and into witty musical accompaniment that's perfect for the time period. ("Up a Lazy River" is just right for a mob hit.) Production values here are so fine they bring to mind David's compliment to Helen, whom he tells that her taste is exquisite.
"My taste is superb," Helen corrects him. "My eyes are exquisite."
"Bullets Over Broadway" is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It includes mild profanity, discreet sexual situations, and a remark by Ms. Wiest that is the very last word in anatomical simile. BULLETS OVER BROADWAY Directed by Woody Allen; written by Mr. Allen and Douglas McGrath; director of photography, Carlo Di Palma; edited by Susan E. Morse; production designer, Santo Loquasto; costumes, Jeffrey Kurland; produced by Robert Greenhut; released by Miramax Films. At Alice Tully Hall tomorrow at 6 P.M. and Sunday at 1:30 P.M. as part of the 32d New York Film Festival. Running time: 99 minutes. This film is rated PG. WITH: Dianne Wiest (Helen Sinclair), John Cusack (David Shayne), Jennifer Tilly (Olive Neal), Rob Reiner (Sheldon Flender), Chazz Palminteri (Cheech), Tracey Ullman (Eden Brent), Mary-Louise Parker (Ellen), Joe Viterelli (Nick Valenti), Jack Warden (Julian Marx), Annie-Joe Edwards (Venus), Jim Broadbent (Warner Purcell) and Harvey Fierstein (Sid Loomis).