Allen's parody of himself makes for a sad `Ending'

Long on slapstick, film comes up short

Movie Review

May 03, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

If Bill Murray cracked a joke about "the Wood-man" these days, how many people would get it?

In Hollywood Ending, Woody Allen's response to the marginalizing of his career is to acknowledge it, exaggerate it and turn it into slapstick.

His alter ego here, director Val Waxman (note to Murray: now he's the Wax-man), lost touch with his times 10 years ago. Playing Val allows Allen to ventilate his familiar outrage over the dumbing-down of America - and Hollywood's role in the process - while also going after laughs so broad they can only be called yocks.

Hollywood Ending does have more laughs than Allen's last few films, but his slapstick sinks to a sub-Three Stooges skill level (in that department he's declined, precipitously, from Sleeper), and his ideal audience would be those young enough to think his anti-L.A. rants are new and sharp, not moldy.

A difficult artist who is also notoriously hypochondriacal, Waxman is about to fall out of the ranks of the employable when his former wife Ellie (Tea Leoni), now a creative executive engaged to a studio boss named Hal (Treat Williams), insists he's the perfect director to remake a Forties film noir set in his beloved Manhattan.

Val leaps at the project without looking - he needs a job of any kind - and then directs it without seeing. For on the eve of shooting he develops a case of hysterical blindness. His agent, Al Hack (Mark Rydell), persuades him to shoot the film or kiss moviemaking goodbye. Luckily, the translator for Val and his Chinese cameraman agrees to be Val's eyes on the set.

Could it be that with the Val-Hal-Al rhyme scheme for his leading men, Allen is suggesting that, no matter what their individual pretensions, all three are similar blends of calculation, impulse and insight? Or that Val the creator, Hal the manipulator and Al the professional enthusiast are a combination that's always made Hollywood run? As Steve Martin might say, "Naaaaah." It's just a silly set of names.

Still, Williams and Rydell (in more ways than one, the poor man's Sydney Pollack) are so much better at suggesting rounded characters than Allen is as Val that they skew the sympathies of the audience.

Williams' Hal appears to be a smart guy with debased tastes. He may want to develop a project about college boys who figure out how to turn coeds back into virgins, but he knows lousy filmmaking when he sees it, and he plays straighter with his fiancee and with Val than they do with him. And Rydell's Al has feigned a smile so long it appears to have morphed into genuine tolerance and amusement.

Allen, so dapper and "up" and in-charge at this year's Academy Awards, continues to reduce himself to a neurotic klutz on the big screen. The way Allen the writer-director has set up the actor, it's impossible to tell whether Val is a poseur or an actual artist. Sure, Val has won two Oscars, but the Motion Picture Academy has never been the arbiter of worth in the Woody Allen universe.

Val's ideas for making a studio movie his own are to employ that Chinese cameraman and try to hire a production designer (played by Isaac Mizrahi) who wants to rebuild the first 20 stories of the Empire State Building on a soundstage.

As a person, Val is even more suspect. Val is so needy he's shacked up with a dumb brunette named Lori (played by Debra Messing), a non-actress who thinks she's a natural actress, and he's so weak he gives her a part in his picture. Val is mostly dazed and confused when he's not enraged at Ellie for leaving him - and what would a competent woman like Ellie see in him? Even when she's tucking him into bed they seem to be in different scenes.

Allen is known for never giving cast members complete copies of his script. Leoni contends she had one, but it's hard to believe that even Allen had one. He doesn't develop anything. He spends so much time spritzing about how Ellie could have left him for "that roast beef from Beverly Hills" that he may not notice he hasn't incorporated any elements of his film-noir-within-the-film into the comedy - he could get the same laughs from Val falling off a high set or fending off a besotted leading lady if Val were making The Scorpion King.

The overarching joke, of course, is that most movies are so lousy they might as well have been made by blind men anyway. Hollywood Ending is only mediocre, but you may leave wondering, what's Allen's excuse?

Hollywood Ending

Starring Woody Allen and Tea Leoni

Directed by Woody Allen

Rated PG-13

Running time 112 minutes

Released by DreamWorks

Sun Score * *

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