In New York in 1928, a struggling playwright is forced to cast a mobster's talentless girlfriend in his latest drama in order to get it produced.In New York in 1928, a struggling playwright is forced to cast a mobster's talentless girlfriend in his latest drama in order to get it produced.In New York in 1928, a struggling playwright is forced to cast a mobster's talentless girlfriend in his latest drama in order to get it produced.
While "Take the Money and Run" and "Bananas" first turned trendy audiences on to his unique brand of improvisational, hit-and-miss comedy episodes, and the more neurotic, self-examining cult hits like "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" cemented his Oscar-winning relationship with Hollywood, the comedy genius has stumbled mightily in this last decade. Attempting to contemporize his image with the coarse, foul-mouthed antics of a Coen or Farrelly brother (see "Mighty Aphrodite") is simply beneath him, and has been about as productive as Stevie Wonder taking a turn at hip-hop. Moreover, casting himself as a 65-year-old romantic protagonist with love interests young enough to be his grandchildren (see "Curse of the Jade Scorpion") has left a noticeably bad aftertaste of late. With "Bullets Over Broadway," however, Allen goes back to basics and wisely avoids the pitfalls of excessive toilet humor and self-aggrandizing casting, and gives us a light, refreshing bit of whimsical escapism. Woody may not be found on screen here, but his presence is felt throughout. Though less topical and analytical than his trademark films, this vehicle brings back a purer essence of Woody and might I say an early innocence hard-pressed to find these days in his work.
John Cusack (can this guy do no wrong?) plays a struggling jazz-era playwright desperate for a Broadway hit who is forced to sell out to a swarthy, aging king-pin (played to perfection by Joe Viterelli) who is looking to finance a theatrical showcase for his much-younger bimbo girlfirend (Jennifer Tilly, in a tailor-made role). The writer goes through a hellish rehearsal period sacrificing his words, not to mention his moral and artistic scruples, in order to appease his mob producers who know zilch about putting on a play. The rehearsal scenes alone are worth the price of admission.
Aside from Allen's clever writing, brisk pace and lush, careful attention to period detail, he has assembled his richest ensemble cast yet with a host of hysterically funny characters in spontaneous banter roaming in and about the proceedings. Cusack is his usual rock-solid self in the panicky, schelmiel role normally reserved for Woody. But even he is dwarfed by the likes of this once-in-a-lifetime supporting cast. Jennifer Tilly, with her doll-like rasp, is hilariously grating as the vapid, virulent, and thoroughly untalented moll. Usually counted on to play broad, one-dimensional, sexually belligerent dames, never has Tilly been give such golden material to feast on, putting her Olive Neal right up there in the 'top 5' fun-filled film floozies of all time, alongside Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont and Lesley Ann Warren's Norma Cassady. Virile, menacing Chazz Palminteri as the fleshy-lipped Cheech, a "dees, dem and dos" guard dog, reveals great comic prowess while affording his pin-striped hit man some touching overtones. Dianne Wiest, who has won bookend support Oscars in Woody Allen pictures (for this and for "Hannah and Her Sisters") doesn't miss a trick as the outre theatre doyenne Helen Sinclair, whose life is as grand and exaggerated off-stage as it is on. Her comic brilliance is on full, flamboyant display, stealing every scene she's in. Tracey Ullman is a pinch-faced delight as the exceedingly anal, puppy-doting ingenue, while Jim Broadbent as a fusty stick-in-the-mud gets his shining moments when his actor's appetite for both food and women get hilariously out of hand. Mary-Louise Parker, as Cusack's cast-off mate, gets the shortest end of the laughing stick, but lends some heart and urgency to the proceedings.
While the play flirts with a burlesque-styled capriciousness, there is an undercoating of seriousness and additional character agendas that keeps the cast from falling into one-note caricatures. And, as always, Woody's spot-on selection of period music is nonpareil. With healthy does of flapper-era Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, not to mention the flavorful vocal stylings of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, Allen, with customary finesse, affectionately transports us back to the glitzy, gin-peddling era of Prohibition and slick Runyonesque antics.
I remember the times when the opening of a new Woody Allen film was a main event. As such, "Bullets Over Broadway" is a comedy valentine to such days. In any respect, it's a winner all the way, especially for Woodyphiles.
- Nov 21, 2002