Shtick wears thin in new Allen filmModern comedy sometimes seems at the end of its rope. Groping for audience attention, it can get desperate, outrageous and mean. Luckily, a few good films like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “In Good Company” have shown it is possible to be funny with simple stories, sincerely told. And then of course, there is the modern master Woody Allen, whose works are hardly traditional Hollywood fare.
So it’s ironic that when Allen takes aim at modern moviemaking in “Hollywood Ending,” his film is sometimes as dull as its targets.
The story follows a washed-up director, Val Waxman (Allen), who gets a second chance when his ex-wife, Ellie (Tea Leoni), convinces her production company to let him direct a comeback project.
Both are intelligent artsy types, but after their divorce, each grabbed trophy lovers: Val is living with the aspiring actress Lori Fox (Debra Messing), and Ellie is engaged to a big-time producer ― and Val’s new employer ― Hal Jaeger (Treat Williams).
Val is the typical Woody Allen character ―absurdly neurotic and accident-prone. He’s in such bad shape that the weekend before filming starts, he goes psychosomatically blind. Determined to direct the picture anyway, Val conspires with his agent, Al Hack (Mark Rydell), and several other characters, to hide his secret and make the film.
The world of “Hollywood Ending” is populated with all the tinseltown archtypes. The art director, exasperated with the real Central Park, sputters, “Let’s just build it.” Val demands a “foreign” cameraman and gets Kau Chan (Lu Yu). Since the dailies are kept secret, Chan is the only non-conspirator that knows how badly “City” is going, and his rants in Mandarin about Val’s random shooting are hilarious.
Meanwhile, the contrast between the hyper-nervous Val and the macho producer Hal makes for one of the film’s funniest scenes, in which the producer demands a man-to-man talk with his director and Val can only stagger around, desperately trying to remember how many steps it is from the desk to the couch. In another good gag, Val falls off a second-story set in the background of an unrelated shot.
However, despite these successes, the film drags along slowly. Allen’s trademark babble is uncharacteristically dull, and he sometimes tries to carry a scene by repeating unfunny schtick. At times, Val becomes so unbearable it is only Leoni’s understated portrayal of the frazzled ex-wife that keeps the film watchable.
The elegant actress serves the plot well, while another highlight is the unexpectedly warm and humane performance by Mark Webber as Val’s estranged punk son, who has renamed himself Scumbag X.
These two lights of genuine humanity may have saved the film, but they don’t make up for lost momentum. When Val finally regains his sight after completing his project, the transformation of this crotchety old man into a bubbling romantic seems emotionally hollow. There are flashes of brilliance, but this “Hollywood Ending” will leave you wanting more.
Comedy / English
by Ben Applegate