The scandal that entered Woody Allen's life a few years ago seemed not to enervate the filmmaker, but rather invigorate him. Not only did he keep to his nearly film-a-year schedule, but in Husbands and Wives and Manhattan Murder Mystery, his characters and situations seemed fully developed, rather than dashed off, for the first time since the flawed, but at least thoughtfully made, Crimes and Misdemeanors. Allen's private life may have been a mess -- even a revolting mess -- but as an artist he was on a roll. Maybe he felt that, under the circumstances, he needed to defend himself with his most bullet-proof work.
So I was eagerly anticipating Bullets Over Broadway, which looks back to his happily Runyonesque Broadway Danny Rose, only this time with a philosophical overlay that was surely provoked by the hard moral questions he's had to face of late. David (John Cusack) is a playwright who wants to be an uncompromising artist and a Broadway success. Because in his relationships with his girlfriend and his leading lady David indulges in the same emotional opportunism that Allen has been accused of, and since Allen is attempting a hard, critical look at David's character, for a moment you think he's turning his scalpel on himself, and that this will be one comedy with blood on its floor.
Instead, for all of its promise, Bullets Over Broadway feels half-baked. Allen let some very rich material slip through his fingers.
That's not immediately clear, though, as the film opens with considerable verve. We meet the ambitious young playwright, his doting girlfriend and their Greenwich Village crowd as they debate the need for high artistic standards. David grouses about his plays' lack of success, but one of his friends, Flender (a very fine Rob Reiner), sounds positively triumphant about his own obscurity. He sees the fact that none of his work has been produced as proof of his genius. Flender is funny, and, because Reiner plays him without a trace of irony, more sharply drawn than you might expect. Though Allen is still writing the same characters -- poor John Cusack has the thankless job of playing Woody Allen, while as his girlfriend, Mary-Louise Parker plays as a smoothed-over Diane Keaton -- this is an engaging scene. By casting mainly younger actors (Reiner is the elder exception here) instead of himself and his cronies, Allen has found a believable venue for the pizza-thin philosophizing that often ruins his supposedly adult characters.
From there the film seems ready to take off as a Broadway producer (Jack Warden) assembles his cast for David's new play. To get a mobster's financial backing, the producer talks him into casting Olive (Jennifer Tilly), an amusingly dense gangster's moll, as a psychiatrist; it's the first of many concessions David will make. Olive's castmates include Warner, a compulsive overeater played by Jim Broadbent; Helen (Dianne Wiest), a self-dramatizing, faded Broadway star (and the object of David's lusts and self-interest); and Eden (Tracey Ullman), a perky performer who carries her Chihuahua with her everywhere.
The final player is Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), the goon who's been assigned the task of shepherding Olive to and from rehearsal. Cheech has the added duty of watching rehearsal, and making sure that Olive gets treated right by the Broadway swells.
At first glance, these characters seem well-drawn, and given the strong cast, Bullets Over Broadway should play as a revved-up farce. But one by one, Allen loses interest in his characters. The wonderful Broadbent and Ullman are almost equally wasted here. You particularly get the feeling that Allen had no idea of who Broadbent was, or what he could do. And while Wiest gets off to a flamboyant start, her character remains stuck on the same over-the-top note. The same is true of Tilly as the dimwit. These characters are engaging, but we don't learn anything about them as the film progresses.
None of this should have weakened the story much, though, as it centers around the relationship between David and the thug/bodyguard Cheech. From the first reading of David's play, we know that he's long on pretension and short on talent, and we expect humor from the hit man's impatience with the play's pomposity. But in a leap of genius, Allen goes beyond that. He has Cheech begin to rewrite the play from the seats. Cheech is supposed to be both a man who really understands human nature and a natural born writer. He begins by questioning David's characters' motivations -- "nobody acts like that" -- and winds up dismissing their dialogue -- Ònobody talks like that."
When the cast agrees with Cheech's revisions, David panics and turns to him for help, bringing us to the crux of the story: David is the compromiser while Cheech is the truth-telling artist. Cheech, in fact, is an artist who kills, and risks being killed, for the integrity of his work.
This is a brilliant notion, and in Palminteri, equally dangerous and sympathetic, Allen has the perfect Cheech. Still, by payoff time the film feels out of focus. The main problem lies in David, the Allen stand-in. John Cusack can be an insightful and edgy actor, but here he fails. It might be that only a younger Woody Allen could have played David; at any rate, Cusack comes across more as a concept than a character, and isn't a strong enough counterpart to Cheech. He could use a dose of complexity, but Allen doesn't examine him closely at all. The story's surprises are reserved for Cheech.
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Part of the film's weakness comes from the filmmaking itself, which, given Allen's old-pro status, is a surprise. The period details range from fine to wonderful (especially the gangster's achingly art deco apartment), and Carlo Di Palma's cinematography is rich and dark. But as the film progressed I felt progressively further from its characters. Finally, I noticed that no one was shot in close-up, and that a fair amount of the action, including crucial scenes, occurred partially off-camera. I finally decided that, in keeping with his story, Allen had intentionally shot the film as a play, complete with stage devices. But that's a self-defeating idea, one that keeps his potentially first-rate film frustratingly beyond our reach.
We do still hear the great lines; ironically, Allen's dialogue has never been better. But it's the icing on a half-baked cake.
Bullets Over Broadway.
Written and directed by Woody Allen. With John Cusack, Jim Broadbent, Tracey Ullman and Dianne Wiest. Rated R.