Since the mid-'80s, Woody Allen has maintained a steady output of films, working in two distinct modes. The ambitious Allen of Manhattan, Interiors, Another Woman and Crimes and Misdemeanors deals, sometimes with humor but usually not, with issues of art, love, sex and existential angst, trying like crazy to be a modern Ibsen or an American Bergman. The "unambitious" Allen--of Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Zelig and Annie Hall--deals with exactly those same issues, sometimes with touches of poignant seriousness, but with a generally comic spirit and a clear aim to entertain. There are exceptions on both sides--Hannah and Her Sisters, ambitious, was a delight, while Alice, unambitious, was a drag. As a rule, though, it is in the latter, easygoing mode that Allen does his best work--not just his most enjoyable or accessible, but his best.
His most recent film, Manhattan Murder Mystery, was a refreshing little doodad, a bit unsteady in its resolution but funny and even suspenseful. Allen's usual practice has been to alternate light comedies with more serious efforts, but his latest work, Bullets Over Broadway, is a jaunty, ephemeral theatre/gangster spoof set in the '20s.
The hero is David (John Cusack, here Allenesque), a young Broadway playwright with two flops to his credit. A producer (Jack Warden) gets financing to mount David's third play, an earnest domestic tragedy. To David's dismay, the backer turns out to be a mob boss (Joe Viterelli), and the condition is the inevitable one--Olive (Jennifer Tilly), the boss's awful moll with acting aspirations, must play an important supporting role. David agrees to this utterly unworkable situation, then assembles a cast of actors he admires--he's also directing--to compensate for the compromise. The company includes Jim Broadbent as the leading man, a compulsive eater, and Tracey Ullman as the twittering second lead. David begins an affair with his star, a glamorous Great Lady type riotously played by Dianne Wiest as a sort of Norma Desmond minus the psychosis. The gimmick of the plot is that Olive's bodyguard, a lethal lug named Cheech (Chazz Palminteri) who sits grumpily in the back row keeping an eye on the boss's squeeze, turns out to be a playwriting prodigy, instinctively able to grasp what could turn the work from David's turgid chamber piece into a vital drama. After David gets past his initial condescension and sees that Cheech's ideas are good, the two men begin to secretly collaborate--Cheech disinterestedly at first, then with increasing passion. Bullets Over Broadway is wrought with such skill that it's pretty much unimpeachable, on its own slight terms. The actors--those mentioned above, plus Harvey Fierstein, Rob Reiner and the excellent Mary-Louise Parker in smaller roles--move inventively through their farcical paces. Carlo Di Palma's cinematography and Santo Loquasto's sets, abetted by some great music, elegantly generate the '20s atmosphere. Things get a little more questionable on a thematic level, though. Allen's apparent point here (he wrote the script, with Douglas McGrath) is that the unwillingness to compromise is what, above all, defines an artist. David is less an artist than Cheech because Cheech will resort, if necessary, even to violence to preserve the integrity of his aesthetic vision.
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It's said right out several times in the course of the film that an artist creates his own moral universe. Yet this is at least the second film of Allen's (Crimes and Misdemeanors is an earlier one) in which an obnoxious woman is the source of threat and disruption to a man's otherwise perfect life. Is it not possible, then, that Allen's yearning for his own moral universe is only passingly concerned with art? If, for instance, one wants to romance one's lover's teenage daughter, one's own moral universe is a handy thing to have around. In any case, artistic compromise is hardly an issue for Allen any longer. There are probably fewer than 20 filmmakers in the world who always get to do it absolutely their own way every single time, and Allen is one of them. No doubt he had to struggle long and hard to get to that situation, but the point is that the more ambitious dialogue he's written--for Interiors, say, or Another Woman--wasn't much less stilted and bloodless than David's. Fortunately, almost every such stuffy effort is followed, one film later, by something sprightly and engaging. Like Bullets Over Broadway.