Hollywood Ending (2002) ** 1/2
Written & directed by Woody Allen. Photography, Wedigo Von Schultzendorff. Editing, Alisa Lepselter. Production design, Santo Loquasto. Producers, Letty Aronson, Charles Joffe, Helen Robin, Jack Rollins, Stephen Tenenbaum Cast: Woody Allen, Tea Leoni, Mark Rydell, Debra Messing, Treat Williams, Mark Webber, George Hamilton, Tiffani Thiessen, Barney Cheng, Lu Yu. Isaac Mizrahi, et al. A Dreamworks release. 114 minutes. PG-13.
As a card-carrying Woodyite, it hurts not to give Woody Allen three stars. The man is one of the jewels on the crown of comedy. He has invented not one but many new film genres in humor, comedy, satire, wit (Jewish and otherwise), inventiveness, clever absurdism and all that. He ranks in the Pantheon of original film-makers, along with the Monty Pythons, "Fawlty Towers" and a small number of other rib-tickling greats. Since 1969 or so, Woody has been a splendid, multi-faceted "auteur."
"Hollywood Ending" is merely OK. Still, I hope to see it again and perhaps find out that the second impression is stronger than the first.
Here he plays movie director Val Waxman, a winner of two Oscars but now on the decline and making a living with TV commercials. At Galaxie Films, a Hollywood studio headed by Hal (Treat Williams), the big shots and their flunkeys are discussing their next production, "The City that Never Sleeps," a remake of a 1940s film noir set in New York.
The honchos and their yes-men are "taking a meeting" to decide whom to select as its director. Executive Ellie (Tea Leoni) creates major resistance when she doggedly proposes Val. .Coincidences being a mainstay of comedy, it happens that Ellie is Val's ex-wife; that while married to him she had an affair with Hal; that she is about to marry Hal. She insists that Val, quirks, neuroses and all, as an Uber-New Yorker and for sundry other reasons is the ideal person to direct the film. Her powerful arguments finally win out.
The scene switches to Val who apparently quits a funny (?) shoot of a commercial in frozen Canada. He returns to Manhattan and has a funny session with his agent Hal. The latter is played by director Mark Rydell. Arguably, he gives "Hollywood Ending"'s best performance, along with Tea Leoni's. His lines, while relatively few are some of the best.
So we have here Val, Hal and Al. Val is cohabiting with Lori (Debra Messing) a bimbo, low-wattage actress who, convinced that Val will put her in the movie, rushes off to a fat farm, even though she's slim and nicely proportioned. Nice bit.
Cut to the chase proper. Val is professionally reunited with his ex. His detestation of Hal who "stole Ellie," his rancor at Ellie's "betrayal" are a diving-board for one-liners. May of them deal with the fact that his (Val's) modest sexuality caused the loss of Ellie to the more potent Hal. "First you exchange looks, then you exchange fluids."
Conscious of his (i.e. Woody's) propensity for the spoken word he declares that "sex is better than talk. Talk is the way of getting to sex." Those are throw-away lines which convinced me that Viagra must have contributed funds to this movie.
One of Val's conditions is that he wants an European cinematographer because foreigners create richer atmospheres. Indeed, the director of photography chosen for "Hollywood Ending" is Wedigo Von Schultzendorff, an unknown German who must have the longest name among camera people. His work is good. So is the production designer's. The excellent Santo Loquasto had been the costume designer for Allen's "Midsummer Night's Comedy" and "Zelig." He then became the production designer for every single Woody movie ( 23 in all) since 1987.
In the film-within-a film Val gets a cinematographer who is Chinese, is irascible, does not know a word of English and must have a permanent translator. He is a caricature. So is nearly everyone else., starting with Galaxie's ornamental, ill-defined, 63-year old George Hamilton whose notorious tan --the deepest on this planet-- plus his facial and body youthness are a running joke in Hollywood.
The familiar Woody signposts are all there: eternal hypochondria, manias, tics and obsessions. Among his ailments he includes elm-tree blight. Ellie assures him that only trees get it. He worries about tumors. She retorts : "You couldn't get a tumor if you tried, You're not mature enough." He also does his patented Jewish stuff, his mumbling, self-deprecation--in short, the whole Megillah.
Crisis after crisis culminate when Val gets psychosomatic blindness (sic.) That's the movie's main course, its "piece de resistance." With the help of others he manages to direct and edit his film while hiding his blindness. Don't ask. The episodes vary from unconvincing to fully impossible. For some obscure reason, he also gets reunited with his long estranged son, a spiky colored-haired, body-pierced, hep and hip druggie rapper or musician of sorts.
Eventually sight comes back to Val.
All that does contain its quota of entertainment, whether or not déjà vu or deja heard. But the movie does not fly too well--let alone soar. It lacks a sufficient quota of novel gags, ironies and one-liners. The bottom line is that while caricatures are no liability in films, caricatures of caricatures are.
Oddly, the most ironical and humorous bit comes at the very end. The finished film is a catastrophic mess. Preview audiences lacerate it. But then there appears a Deus ex Machina in the shape of reviews from France that praise it to the skies as something new and avant-garde.. Of course, the French always know best. So guess to which European capital Val and Ellie, together again for the first time, fly to make a movie there?