"Bullets Over Broadway," Woody Allen's new film, has the feel of a good career move. It seems like a project that emerged in the wake of a long and serious talk with his agent. "Woody, it's time to get people laughing again. Your angst, your pain, your guilt, your valuable insights into the Freudian psyche of American culture -- flush 'em."
And Allen listened: he hasn't been this zesty and energetic, this frivolous, this loosey-goosey funny in years, though, as usual, there is indeed a whisper of seriousness.
The premise of the work is set up deftly to explore an issue, and the issue is talent. Talent, darn its obstreperous soul, plays by its own rules. Talent goes, in other words, where it wants, not where it's supposed to go.
It's the Twenties. Ernest young playwright David Shayne (John Cusack), seemingly a promising writer, has convinced hoary old Broadway pro Julian Marx (Jack Warden) to produce his new play. The play has everything a play should have: It's socially aware, it's full of important speeches, it represents the little guy and its heart is in the right place. One problem: Julian doesn't have any money and David doesn't have any talent.
Soon enough the money is found: A gangster named Nick Valenti, in the middle of a gang war, is willing to finance the play as long as the ingenue role goes to his mistress Olive (Jennifer Tilly), who is very loud and who fits right in with the crew because she doesn't have any talent either. A number of amusingly overdrawn actors are hired -- a showy diva played by Dianne Wiest, a lard-bellied co-star played by Jim Broadbent, an energetic featured player played by Tracy Ullman. For a while the movie progresses somewhat along the lines of Mel Brooks' delirious "The Producers," in which a gaggle of well-meaning incompetents conspire to put on the most unwatchable play in history.
And then . . . from the rear of the theater, issuing from the raspy larynx of a languid gunman, under eyes that have seen so much violence nothing much registers, out of the least likely source imaginable -- comes the voice of talent. Don't ask how Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), Olive's bodyguard and a long-time hit man, knows. He shouldn't, he couldn't, he can't. He just does; he has a dramatic imagination, a sense of spoken language, a conceptual grasp of structure. He sees through the knotty problems of narrative and motivation. He understands how the story must be told.
It's a hilarious conceit: The natural talent of the unlettered man vs. the bogus one of the lettered one; and much of the comedy is built around the utter frustration of the bogus David as he comprehends (and resents) the shimmering insight of the former. In a sense, the piece echoes Peter Hunt's "Amadeus" with the ages reversed: Wolfgang turns out to be a tough Bronx hood with the .38 and Salieri a beret-wearing young artist with a Proletariat-R-Us button. One feels the young man's panic as Cheech quietly takes over authorship of the play and relentlessly pushes it toward the one thing that seemed so impossible: distinction.
But then so cleverly, the stakes mutate slightly and the issue becomes integrity vs. compromise. Here, Allen is clever enough to avoid didacticism and surprises on the position he takes. For with Cheech's talent, as it turns out, there is an equally fervent sense of absolutism. Suddenly genius, which has been good, is seen as shaded with ambiguity. Cheech understands how fine is the thing he has wrought and its perfection becomes a goal in and of itself, to be pursued with maximum ruthlessness. Meanwhile, poor David, by now a hopeless beat behind and a day late, struggles to retain contact with the human race.
As a director, Allen has never seemed more fully in command. Possibly it liberates him not to appear in a film; or possibly it's that as an actor his presence has become so mannered that it's irritating, and it's not missed here. But, like any good farce, "Bullets Over Broadway" just flies along, inventing new situations and unleashing zippy one-liners. Wiest is particularly good as, essentially, Tallulah on a bad day or Kathleen Turner on a good one.
Hello, Woody: It's so nice to have you back where you belong.
"Bullets Over Broadway"
Starring John Cusack, Dianne Wiest and Chazz Palminteri
Directed by Woody Allen
Released by Miramax