For much of his recent career, when his Neurotic New York shtick began to show signs of wear, it could have been argued that Woody Allen needed to get out more. These days, however, he’s getting out plenty: his wonderful surprise appearance at the Oscars, his first trip to Cannes later this month, even his on-camera participation in the new TCM documentary “Woody Allen: A Life in Film.” Now that he’s past retirement age, the Woodman has miraculously discovered that a little DreamWorks-style publicity – the nice “I’m happy to plug my latest project” kind, not the nasty “I diddled my girlfriend’s daughter” kind – isn’t so bad after all. So it’s a pity that this new warm-and-cuddly Woody Allen hasn’t exactly been on a roll, cinematically speaking.
“Hollywood Ending” serves as more proof, as if any were needed, that Allen desperately needs to devote more time to polishing his scripts, and less to heedlessly banging out one film a year, year in and year out. It’s been quantity over quality for some time, at least since the bracing misanthropy of 1997’s Deconstructing Harry. (The days of him berating anyone for being a “world-class meshugene c**t” seem to be over, sadly.) Even those who view half-assed Woody as better than no Woody – the moviegoing equivalent of an annual comfort-food binge – will find little to like here. Most of “Hollywood Ending” is all but indigestible.
The plot – and a thin one it is, too thin to sustain the film’s 114-minute running time – concerns has-been film director Val Waxman, a winner of two Oscars who’s been reduced to shooting a deodorant commercial in Canada. Fired from that ignoble job, Val finds an unlikely savior in ex-wife Ellie (Téa Leoni), now a top executive at Galaxie Pictures. Somehow Ellie has the idea that Val would be the perfect helmer for a $60-million noir project called “The City That Never Sleeps.” The problem is that Ellie’s new fiancé happens to be Hal (Treat Williams), the chief of the studio. Hal, unsurprisingly, doesn’t think Val is such a great idea. (For the record, Val’s agent, nicely played by Mark Rydell, is called Al. That’s right: Val, Hal and Al, all in the same picture.)
But the real problem is that, having landed the job, on the eve of principal photography, Val suddenly finds himself blind. His shrink tells him it’s psychosomatic, and agent Al tells him to hide the ailment at all costs. He must direct the film, vision or no vision, because everyone’s a***s are on the line, they’ll never work in this town again, etc. Hilarity ensues – well, timidity, actually, with the odd moment of hilarity cropping up about once every half-hour.
There’s almost no aspect of “Hollywood Ending” in which the strain doesn’t show. Allen’s frantic performance (as himself, of course, but apparently it’s a tougher gig than it used to be; watching him flail away at it isn’t much easier) is at severe odds with his own slack direction and Alisa Lepselter’s frankly lazy editing. A wan, overlong jumble of weak slapstick and forced one-liners, “Hollywood Ending” just plods along, staged with even less energy than the infamously dour “Interiors.” More and more, it feels like Allen – presumably plotting out his next film in his head while directing the film at hand – can’t be bothered to have his actors do more than pass in and out of frame while delivering their lines. At the very least, he’s way too prolific for his own good, and needs to bring back a good co-writer or three. (What, are Marshall Brickman and Douglas McGrath busy curing cancer?)
It’s mainly up to Leoni to carry all the deadweight, and she manages appealingly enough (better, at least, than her grim work in Deep Impact and Jurassic Park III). And while one can understand every hot young actor’s desire to be showcased in a “prestigious” Woody Allen film, Debra Messing is done no favors by her unflattering turn as Val’s ditzoid actress girlfriend. And if, for some reason, you’re here to behold the charms of requisite ingénue Tiffani Thiessen – make sure not to blink.
More deadly is the way the gimmick of Val’s sudden blindness isn’t introduced until about 45 minutes in, and it’s never remotely convincing. Val appears unable to simply respond to the sound of people’s voices; much of the time he faces in the exact opposite direction of whoever he’s talking to. Yet nobody suspects his “secret” for a minute. Meanwhile, he keeps repeating to Ellie that his deception isn’t working, and he’s right. It doesn’t. Not to mention the fact that the footage Val is shooting for his movie looks utterly terrible, in more ways than just visually. The term for this particular malady isn’t blindness, it’s lameness.
So what are we patient devotees of the Woodman left with? The same wilted jokes about hypochondria, death, masturbation and Los Angeles in general. The returns are rapidly diminishing, though, and what once looked effortless now feels like pure hard labor. It’s getting difficult to watch this old dog trying so hard to pull off the same old tricks; Allen is becoming a caricature of himself, a cartoon, before our very eyes.
Allen is not quite in Celebrity territory here – that dreadful slog still has to be the low point against which all others are measured – but late-period high points like “Husbands and Wives” and “Bullets Over Broadway” have never seemed so long ago and far away. It’s unfortunate that Allen couldn’t have turned out bland little trifles like “Hollywood Ending” (as well as his last two, “Curse of the Jade Scorpion” and Small Time Crooks) when he was still relatively spry, and put off his gloomy Bergman phase until now. It would suit him far better at this late date. Come back, “Another Woman” – all is forgiven!
Now that he really has aged, Allen seems to have decided he truly longs to be the “old, funny Woody” again. Well, either his heart’s not in it or he’s simply losing his touch. Either way, the three minutes of his Oscar appearance were more enjoyable than anything to be found here.
By the way, the in-joke Hollywood ending of “Hollywood Ending” posits that the French end up loving Val’s movie, and it finds great success in the sophisticated cinemas of Paris. If Woody is lucky, perhaps the French, in their infinite forbearance, will love this one too.
As for everyone else…we’ll always have Spider-Man.