BULLETS OVER BROADWAY *** 1/2 Directed by Woody Allen. Written by Allen & Douglas McGrath. Photography, Carlo Di Palma. Editing, Susan E. Morse. Production design,. Santo Loquasto. Musical selections. presumably Woody Allen (uncredited). Cast: John Cusack, Jack Warden, Diane Wiest, Chazz Palminteri, Jennifer Tilly, Joe Viterelli, Rob Reiner, Mary-Louise Parker, Harvey Fierstein, Jim Broadbent, Tracey Ullman. A Miramax release. 98 min. Rated PG.
According to a Spanish saying "you can tell a good day from its dawn." In movies, dawn means the opening credits, and with Woody Allen films, the plain black and white words that precede the color images give you the familiar, comfortable feeling that it's going to be a good day.
The credits' music sets the tone. Here Al Jolson sings with exuberance another one of those pop classics that Allen loves so much and so well , "Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Good-bye)." It announces the tempo and the tongue-in-cheekness to come.
The story is set in the New York of the Roaring Twenties. David (Cusack) a struggling Greenwich Village playwright in a milieu of what were once called Bohemians, who think of themselves as misunderstood geniuses. David is dead cert that his latest, ponderously socially relevant effort is a masterpiece.
The man is unbankable but his clever producer (Warden) finds a backer in Nick Valenti (Viterelli), a dense but powerful gangster whom his dimwit moll, show-girl Olive (a jim-dandy Jennifer Tilly), pressures for a part in the play. Author-director David has no choice but to cast her --as a psychiatrist!
Olive is more a pit than a pip. Confused by words like "masochistic" or "superfluous," forgetting the "you" in "the world revolves around you," she can't even handle the single line "To be or not to be." (This might be an allusion to the great Ernst Lubitsch and his gem on thespians, "To Be or Not to Be").
Her voice may remind you of "dumb blonde" Jean Hagen's in "Singin' in the Rain" and of Judy Holliday's. In fact, I later found out that co-scripter McGrath had written the scenario for the recent remake of the Holliday hit "Born Yesterday."
Allen and McGrath have engineered the familiar amalgam of mounting a play, rehearsals and oddball characters in a Damon Runyonesque world. But they added a wonderfully original dimension.
Nick has ordered hitman Cheech (Palminteri) to keep an eye on Olive. Cheech's rather sinister, dour presence is everywhere. One day, however, when rehearsals hit yet another snag, the "torpedo" matter-of-factly suggests a change in the play.
It works so well that gradually Cheech rewrites the whole thing --and becomes quite possessive about it. If there's a moral here beyond the anecdote it is that there's an artistic gene that has nothing to do with learning -- depressing news for writing classes.
A second major twist occurs later. It cannot not be revealed. Aside from this the movie is a most amusing and knowing comedy about stage people and others.
Casting is near-perfect. How admirable are the Evanston-born Cusack siblings, John and Joan. Both have proved their worth time and again, in almost opposing styles, often in supporting roles, seldom in big popular movies.
Here, John, conscious of his compromise, hyperventilates as he shouts to his girlfriend "I'm a whore! Its a deal with the devil!" Though on and off he twitches, he is essentially an innocent--mystified, rather quiet, and most effective.
David is more than matched by cool Cheech. The odd couple have an even odder --and rather touching -- rapprochement as they work together in Cheech's "office," a pool-room. Cheech brings his experience both as the gangster son of a gangster and as a fellow who has seen real life. "You don't write the way people talk" is his first remonstrance to David.
Balancing out those two is Diane Wiest as the flamboyant Helen Sinclair, a headliner whose last plays bombed and who drinks. The self-centered aging thespian is not new to movies, but Helen's grande dame is written with originality. She seduces dazzled David and has some of the funniest lines of the film. "As my late husband used to say..." she tells her agent. "Which one?" " I don't know, the one with the beard." Arriving late at a rehearsal: " Please forgive me, my pedicurist had a stroke."
Vibrant too is Tracey Ullman in a small, delicious part, while, somewhere between the extremes is Britisher Jim Broadbent, as an actor whose bulimia drives him to comic eating excesses and whose libido almost gets him caught by the gangsters in Olive's room. Here reappears that hackneyed bit of farce, a man in his underwear hiding in a closet and jumping through a window. But it is so well scripted and executed that it is far from stale. (Try to catch on cable in "A Sense of History," a one man tour-de-force film written by Broadbent, directed by Mike Leigh. It's a superb example of British humor).
There's more to "Bullets"an superficially meets the eye. It is a work that lies at the intersection of theater and of older movies rejuvenated. It has comedic aspects but a serious development too about the dedication to art.
It has screwball elements but is not a screwball comedy. It goes more for chuckles than for belly laughs. And characteristically, filmmaker/playwright Allen uses non-stop, rapid-fire, overlapping, often loud dialogues that also recall the movies of Howard Hawks (that master of screwball comedies plus other genres) and of Robert Altman.. Like those "auteurs " too, Allen can go in several directions while keeping all the threads alive and well.
Theatrical and cinematic echoes abound, from small details (Venus, as Olive's maid, is outspoken like her equivalents in 30s talkies) to large. Crucial connections come from Woody Allen's past work. His satire of David the playwright seems to mock Allen's Ingmar Bergman phase. A confirmation comes from Helen, who, approving of the rewrites but unaware that Cheech is behind them, praises David: "Your play is no longer tepid and cerebral. Now it's full of life."
Poor, smitten David attempts to confess the subterfuge but cannot. Anxiously he asks , "Do you love in me the artist or the man?" This is Cyrano-like pathos as well as in a direct line from Martin Ritt's "The Front" where untalented Woody signed scripts by blacklisted TV writers during the Red Scare witchhunts.
The film's production values are strikingly good, with lovely period-nostalgia music enhancing the situations, darkish photography counterpointing the comedy, and an exceptionally large number of 1920s sets reproducing meticulously interiors (Olive's tacky, overdone Art Deco apartment is a visual joke) and exteriors. The film's look comes from Allen's longtime collaborators. They, like the actors, are given a free hand to improvise and improve.
Not everything is perfect. There are some longueurs, especially while we wait for Cheech's first intervention. Mary-Louise Parker as David's girlfriend is way underwritten and the wrap-up is rather lame.But all this does not prevent "Bullets" from being another Woody high and a scrumptious gift to film-lovers.
Copyright Edwin Jahiel & The News-Gazette