Woody Allen has been spoofing Hollywood conventions for so long that it was only a matter of time before he finally turned the camera on himself.
Has it really been thirty-seven years since Allen leaped from the small screen to the big screen with his irreverent comedy “What’s New Pussycat?” I feel old when I realize that 1977’s “Annie Hall” is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary.
Since 1969’s “Take The Money and Run,” Allen has written and directed thirty-one theatrical films (and written and acted in several more). “Hollywood Ending” is his latest, a comic look at what happens when a past-his-prime director gets the opportunity of a lifetime, then experiences hysterical blindness on the first day of shooting.
It’s a cute gimmick, one mined for as much humor as possible from Allen, who literally spoofs himself playing Val Waxman, two-time Oscar winning director currently filming deodorant commercials in Canada. At least it beats the geriatric diaper commercial his agent is pushing.
Just as Val hits rock bottom, his career gets a reprieve when ex-wife Ellie (Tea Leoni), now a producer and fiancee of studio head Hal (Treat Williams), lands Val the job directing a remake of a New York period gangster film. What begins as a dream come true turns into an instant nightmare when mounting pressures cause Val to go temporarily blind.
With his comeback in jeopardy, Val confides in Ellie, his agent Al (Mark Rydell) and his cinematographer’s interpreter in order to direct the film. This leads to all sorts of comic complications, most of which hit their mark, some that fall flat. There’s a great deal of physical humor in “Hollywood Ending,” a style Allen hasn’t embraced since the early seventies in films like “Sleeper” and “Bananas.”
In the grand scheme of things the physical comedy has its place, but it’s also a little odd to see someone of Allen’s age taking pratfalls. Allen’s obsession with getting the girl, no matter what her age, takes its toll in “Hollywood Ending.” The May-December romance thing is getting old. Here we’re asked to accept not one but two such relationships. There’s Ellie, his ex-wife, played by the spunky and attractive Leoni, and Lori (Debra Messing), Val’s current girlfriend and aspiring actress..
Once you get past the awkward romance and slapstick humor, what remains is actually a sharp- edged comedy about what happens behind the camera. It’s a world that Allen knows all to well, and his observations are both hilarious and honest. Allen even tosses himself on the grill, roasting his unique style of filmmaking. When Val demands that the film project be shot in black and white, you know from experience that is Allen speaking.
Then there are the complications that arise when Val must contend with a Chinese director of photography who doesn’t speak English. Anyone who has enjoyed a Woody Allen film in the past decade knows his predilection for utilizing foreign cinematographers.
Another inside joke deals with Val’s current girlfriend Lori, who upon learning of his new film immediately makes plans to be in it. Shades of Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow.
We have seen Allen play this nebbish character before, and it still works for him, but only up to a certain point. The opening scenes are especially incisive and funny, but after a while the physical humor begins to stumble. “Hollywood Ending” is basically a one-joke film, but no is more capable of sustaining that joke than Allen.
He has a winning cast to back him up, including a deliciously droll George Hamilton as a studio executive who really doesn’t do anything expect look on with disapproval. It’s been a very long time since Hamilton has been this much fun (“Love at First Bite”), and like Allen, he has no problem pulling up his sleeves and getting his image dirty.
Tea Leoni brings an endearing quality to Ellie, whose frustrations of putting her reputation on the line are only matched by Val’s unexpected demands. Leoni can be very funny (check out her work on “The Naked Truth”) and it’s nice to see her talents put to such good use. Treat Williams is well cast as the studio head who stole Ellie away from Val, and plans to use that connection to use and abuse Val.
Allen likes to employ other filmmakers in pivotal roles, and director Mark Rydell (“On Golden Pond,” “Cinderella Liberty”) is outstanding as Val’s agent who doesn’t care what gig he lands his client as long as he gets his percentage. It’s a wonderfully witty turn. So is Debra Messing’s Lori, an opportunistic starlet who doesn’t love Val as much as what he can do for her career.
“Hollywood Ending” isn’t a great Woody Allen film. It falls in the middle of his catalog of work, with “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” at one end, and “Celebrity” and “September” at the other. It’s a pleasant diversion that proves Allen still has what it takes to make audiences laugh.
“HOLLYWOOD” WOODY’S WAY
Allen turns blind eye to filmmaking conventions
Woody Allen, Tea Leoni, Debra Messing, George Hamilton, Mark Rydell, Treat Williams. Directed by Woody Allen. Rated PG-13.
LARSEN RATING: $5