written and directed by Woody Allen with Woody Allen, T顠Leoni, Treat Williams, and Debra Messing opens May 3 at Guild 45, Meridian, Factoria, and others
REMEMBER HOW Woody made fun of California superficiality from a neurotic New Yorker's perspective? Ah, yes—that was Annie Hall. Remember how Woody pitted a flaky director against a crass showbiz phony? Oh, sure—that was Hannah and Her Sisters. Remember how Woody stammered and bumbled his way into the arms of a much, much younger woman? Ahem, right—that was Manhattan, Mighty Aphrodite, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and Everyone Says I Love You.
If memory serves, Hollywood Ending represents a diverting yet mediocre recapitulation of the Woodman's long, long film career. His love-hate relationship with Hollywood is all over Ending, which concerns a washed-up N.Y.C. director, Val Waxman (Allen), given a shot at redemption by his ex-wife, Ellie (T顠Leoni), now an L.A. studio executive engaged to her boss (Treat Williams). Though 10 years divorced from the famously unreliable hypochondriac, Ellie makes a successful pitch for Val to helm her pet project The City That Never Sleeps. A smart woman in a vapid industry, Ellie's idealism is touching, and Leoni's distracted braininess—"No, wait!"—makes her the most interesting character here. Why is she with the glad-handing studio boss instead of Val? Why did she put up with insufferable Val in the first place?
Rather than addressing such questions, Allen unwisely keeps the lens trained squarely on himself. Afflicted with a case of psychosomatic blindness just before shooting, Val proceeds to direct City in comedic darkness, initially aided only by his agent and his cinematographer's Mandarin translator. The premise is funny enough in a Borscht Belt kind of way (blind man directs!), but the execution lags. Allen hogs the spotlight and belabors his gags, looking like one of his old self-deluded clients in Broadway Danny Rose—a guy who doesn't realize his era is over.
"IT ONLY TAKES one hit," offers Val's sexy young actress girlfriend (Debra Messing), but her optimism about the potentially career-salvaging City—in which she naturally gets a featured role—is less than contagious. For a man who's directed some three dozen features, Allen makes the filming process seem an ordeal. The goodies on the catering table look delectable, but the rest of the business appears rotten, from scheming starlets (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) to extravagant art directors (Isaac Mizrahi). Movies suck.
So why bother? Where is the love of the popular medium, the Casablanca of Play It Again, Sam, the Marx Brothers of Hannah? Allen can't disguise his contempt for Hollywood suits, video markets, preview audiences, and hectoring journalists. Val sputters that the studio's favorite demographic is America gone "dumb," but has it? Such condescension ill befits a man who snipes about City being a mere '40s remake, while Ending is no less derivative. Val and Ellie's bickering soundstage romance may hearken back to Tracy and Hepburn or Powell and Loy, but viewers have ready access to those originals on DVD. Perhaps, far from being dumb, they're just weary of such reheatings of stale formulas.
The curmudgeon shtick grows particularly stale with the desperate third-act introduction of Val's estranged punk-rocker son. Let's see—when were Mohawks, piercing, cut-off plaid trousers, and Oxbloods considered shocking? 1976? 1977? (Granted, the director's tattooed, rat-eating spawn uses words like "quintessential," so the chip hasn't fallen too far from the old block.) Allen's disdain for pop culture feels sadly, bizarrely out of touch.
As a writer, however, Allen can still deliver a bona fide zinger—but he rarely grants them to other talent. (Ellie to Val: "At least you won't be able to read the reviews.") Leoni's scenes are all reactive, not active; Messing gets shipped away for most of the film; and Allen casts Mark Rydell, a director with zero screen appeal, in the substantial part of his agent. Why such stinginess? As with Curse and Small Time Crooks, Ending reveals a performer afraid of being upstaged. (In his last good movie, Sweet and Lowdown, Allen stayed behind the camera.) Even as A-listers lower their quotes and eagerly line up to act in each new picture (as we do to watch), he responds ungratefully. When Ellie says of Val, "He could do this material with his eyes closed," you wish that Allen would open his.