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MOVIE REVIEWS : There's an Art to Allen's Shots at 'Broadway'

October 21, 1994|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The life of the theater has lots of life in Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway." Set in the Prohibition '20s, it's a theatrical satire crossed with a gangster satire, and the joke is in how close the two realms really are. The onstage prima donnas and posturers and leches are as conniving and strong-arming as gangsters--they just use barbs instead of bullets.

This collision of worlds comes about when the only backer for the Broadway production of a work by promising young playwright David Shayne (John Cusack) is mobster Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli). The condition for the backing is that Nick's flouncy, aggressively untalented showgirl mistress, Olive (Jennifer Tilly), must be given a starring role. She ends up getting--and mangling--the role of the psychiatrist. (Allen is perhaps the world's best-known analysand. Is he dissing the profession here?)

David has perfected the somewhat emaciated Greenwich Village look of the "true" artist. (He also, as played by Cusack, acts and sounds suspiciously close to Woody Allen.) David quarrels with his producer (Jack Warden) about the indignity of casting Olive in order to rescue his show (which he also ends up directing).

When the dread decision is made, he wakes up screaming in the middle of the night and screams out the window, "I'm a whore." David is inflamed by compromise; he turns his selling out into high flamboyant drama. It's his worst--and finest--hour. David is a schnook with standards--a blood-brother to the Coen brothers' Barton Fink, who also primped his principles (while also selling out).

David's girlfriend Ellen (Mary-Louise Parker) is bemused by his tortuousness. When the aging, Norma Desmond-like star Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest) is cast as the lead in his play, David's flailing about becomes ever more foolish. Helen plays on his vanity; he falls in love with her. She knows his play is a stinker, but she figures he can at least expand her role if she name-drops his heroes--"Max Anderson, Gene O'Neill"--often enough.

But there's a wild card here. Olive's bodyguard, Cheech (very well played by Chazz Palminteri), sent by Nick to keep an eye on her during rehearsals, turns out to have better ideas on how to fix the play than the playwright. Without making a big fancy deal about it, "Bullets Over Broadway," co-written by Douglas McGrath, turns into a riff on the nature of artistry. David, with his haunted look and high-flown common-man sentiments, is the popular image of the Greenwich Village-style artist. But he's the artist as poseur. Cheech, the hit man who really comes from the streets, is the artist we don't recognize--don't want to recognize.

Allen knows how shopworn satire of the theater can be, but he has come up with a dandy crew of scene-stealers. There's Tracey Ullman, as a superannuated ingenue hugging her Chihuahua, Jim Broadbent as the voluminous ex-matinee idol whose waistline expands in direct proportion to his anxieties, Tilly as the swacked showgirl--she may be a bimbo, but, with her woozy wiles, and her nasally voice as loud as an air-raid siren, she's a bimbo of genius. All of these performers are "too much," but that's not a criticism. The only way they can play their roles is to overplay them--that's the nature of high theatrical satire.

*

Wiest is so gloriously over the top that she turns Helen into a sacred monster. She's the soul of theater--she's Mistress Thespian. Whether she's cocooned in furs or glazed in makeup, Helen is a powerhouse of intimidation. David doesn't stand a chance with her; he's a speck on the windshield of her ego. Wiest doesn't try for pathos--she's having too much fun for that. Every time you think she has gone too far in "Bullets Over Broadway," she redeems the foolery with her sozzled, spirited timing. She understands the royal pettiness, and the smarts, behind Helen's Great Lady act. Helen may be a big blur of narcissism, but she's great at sizing up weakness, including her own. That's why she goes after David so strenuously. Despite her self-proclaimed "legendary" status, she knows she needs a hit.

David, of course, is the most self-deluded character in the movie. By its end, he has his eyes opened. One of his cronies--an obnoxious, unproduced playwright played by Rob Reiner--tells him at one point that "an artist creates his own moral universe." The movie ends up being a kind of riposte to that gangsterish sentiment. (It's possible--though not very productive--to interpret the movie as Allen's apologia for his above-it-all public stance during the early stages of his famous troubles.)

Yet, Allen surely regards himself as an artist. He wants us to know that artistry isn't all it's cracked up to be--that it's better to be a decent human being and know your limitations and live a good life. But he also wants us to know he's enough of an artist to be able to humble himself in that way and still make a movie as good as "Bullets Over Broadway." So he has it both ways.

It's a neat hat trick.

* MPAA rating: R, for some language. Times guidelines: It includes a few non-graphic rub-outs.

'Bullets Over Broadway' John Cusack: David Shayne Dianne Weist: Helen Sinclair Jennifer Tilly: Olive Mary-Louise Parker: Ellen Chazz Palminteri: Cheech A Miramax release from Sweetland Films of a Jean Doumanian production. Director Woody Allen. Producer Robert Greenhut. Executive producers Doumanian, J.E. Beaucaire. Screenplay by Allen, Douglas McGrath. Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma. Editors Susan E. Morse. Costumes Jeffrey Kurland. Production design Santo Loquasto. Set decorator Susan Bode. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.

* In limited release at Westwood General Cinema's Avco Cinema, 10840 Wilshire Blvd. , (310) 475-0711 .

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