It's going to be a shot in the dark!
There are no new ideas in Hollywood. Many of today's producers, screenwriters, and filmmakers beg, borrow, and steal from plotlines, characters, and situations of the past. The resulting product can be likened to a smorgasbord of leftovers that have lost their flavor and appeal. Some of these films achieve modest success while others fail miserably. Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending falls somewhere in between.
Facts of the Case
Val Waxman (Woody Allen) is on the verge of becoming a Hollywood has-been. This two-time Academy Award winning director has been relegated to filming deodorant commercials in the wilds of Northern Canada. His tumultuous past and hyper-neurotic tendencies have alienated just about everyone in Los Angeles—but the universe is about to give him one last chance to salvage his career. A hot script, "The City that Never Sleeps," has fallen into the hands of Galaxie Studio head Hal Yaeger (Treat Williams), who happens to be shtupping Val's ex-wife Ellie (Téa Leoni). The story is a 1940s New York City crime drama that Ellie feels Val could direct with his eyes closed. Despite everyone's better judgement, Val gets the job, igniting a chain reaction of stress inducing events that leaves our would-be director blinded by fear—literally. Knowing he would never work again if anyone found out, Val gets by with a little help from his friends, as they work to keep the picture on schedule while hiding the fact that he can't see a damn thing. Cue the madcap and zany antics.
Viewers of writer/director Woody Allen's films fall into two camps—love 'em or hate 'em. Personally, I fall into the love 'em camp. Ever since seeing Take the Money and Run, I've been drawn into his self-deprecating humor and off-the-wall stories. Granted, they haven't all been home runs, but he's accumulated more than his fair share of extra base hits—Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes And Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway. However, Allen's recent films, created in the midst of personal turmoil—Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Small Time Crooks—have become very formulaic, lacking the zest and energy of his best work.
Hollywood Ending is an awakening of sorts. We begin to see the rebirth of Allen's sharp comedic timing and wit, unfortunately only in brief flashes. Val and Ellie's bar conversation is inspired and laugh out loud funny, as is Val's blind geographical mapping of Hal's hotel suite. Yet, still half asleep, Allen falls back on old gags and tired devices—making a movie within a movie, the business partner ex-wife who ran off with another guy, the nosy tabloid journalist, the air-headed girlfriend, the foreign associate who doesn't speak a word of English, et cetera. We don't even get Allen's customary visual postcard of New York, as the film bounces between NY and LA, with most of the action taking place indoors. The one touching moment of the film comes in a scene between Val and his estranged artistic son (Mark Webber, Chelsea Walls)—but it's intended meaning falls flat, losing its impact on the overall film. In the end, what could have been a sharp, satirical look at the war between the art and business of filmmaking turns out to be nothing more than a "nice try" retread of Allen's previous work.
What makes the picture worth watching are some tremendous supporting performances. The hero of the film is Téa Leoni (Flirting With Disaster), giving one of the finest performances of her career. Standing toe to toe with Allen, Leoni nails nearly every line reading, making her performance seem effortless, as if the two had been working together for years. The only thing I didn't buy was the sexual chemistry between the two of them. They operate much more effectively as former husband and wife, whose passion died a long time ago. The other standout is actor/director Mark Rydell (Punchline) as Waxman's agent, Al. Rydell is the perfect foil for Allen's neuroses. His presence levels the playing field when the chips are down and his timing is impeccable. Rounding out the cast in much smaller roles are Treat Williams (Everwood) as the suspicious studio chief, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi as the film's flamboyant production designer, George Hamilton (Love at First Bite) in a throwaway role as the film's producer, Tiffani "Saved By the Bell" Thiessen (Fastlane) as the would-be sex pot lead actress, and Debra Messing (Will & Grace) as Waxman's dimwitted, no talent girlfriend. The surprise performance arrives in the form of Barney Cheng (Rollerball ) as the translator originally hired to converse with Val's Chinese cinematographer and later enlisted to help cover up his disability. Cheng's naïveté and deadpan delivery elicit a surprising number of laughs.
From a technical perspective, this 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer comes across crystal clear, as one would expect from a recent release. Now if only we can get all of Allen's film released in this format. The colors are vibrant and the blacks, what little there are of them, are rock solid. The film has certain warmth about it, not seen in many of today's releases. The last film I got this feeling from was Billy Crystal's Mr. Saturday Night. While some might find the 1.0 mono audio track lacking, it's standard operating procedure for Allen and the film is not at all hindered by it. In fact, it only serves to enhance the film's throwback feel. In terms of extras, the disc is unsurprisingly sparse. Aside from theatrical trailers and production notes, the only other perks are the more intimate than normal cast and crew bios.
Love him or hate him, Woody Allen is legendary artist whose comedic legacy will last one hundred lifetimes or more. The influence his work has had on more subsequent generations of writers, filmmakers, and actors is immeasurable. Is Hollywood Ending one of his best films? No. Has he past his prime as a filmmaker? No. Regardless of age and recent perceived success and/or failure, Allen still has stories only he can tell. For those who appreciate them, we can only hope he will continue to do so. For people who don't get Woody Allen, this is not the film that will convert you. At a sticker price of $32.99, this one can only muster a rental recommendation for fans of Allen, Leoni, or the genre.
This court applauds Woody Allen for his commitment to his craft, despite all the personal distractions he has suffered in recent years. While the film fails on a number of levels, all felonious charges are hereby dismissed. In addition, DreamWorks is to be commended for presenting a beautiful albeit simplistic packaging of the film. We look forward to your future endeavors. This court now stands in recess.
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