Hollywood Ending (2002)

D: Woody Allen
S: Woody Allen, Tea Leoni

It has becoming increasingly difficult to be entertained by Woody Allen's descent into mediocrity. Ten years ago we might have given him the benefit of the doubt for a film like Hollywood Ending, because it probably would have been bracketed by something better. But this film is merely the latest in a series of half-baked comic dramas, and though more consistently paced than Small Time Crooks and less desperate than Curse of the Jade Scorpion, it still feels like a first draft knocked out quickly by a cinematic talent past its prime.

The plot concerns the events which transpire when washed up director Allen is hired for a major studio project by a reluctant Treat Williams (Deep Rising), now married to Allen's ex-wife Tea Leoni (Deep Impact). Leoni is willing to put aside her personal feelings and give her old flame a chance in spite of his reputation for temperamental behaviour and psychosomatic illness. Allen is initially resistant to what he perceives as charity, but realises that the project is probably his last chance to reconstruct his shattered reputation. He agrees to do it, but as preparations begin he finds he is unable to let go of his feelings for Leoni, resulting in several confrontations. When she leaves for the West coast in order to stay out of his way, he goes psychosomatically blind. So far it doesn't sound particularly funny, but to this point the film is actually not too bad, if a little over-familiar. There are a number of bitchy in-jokes and amusing one-liners in there which raise a smile, certainly enough to pass the time painlessly even if the film is neither surprising nor exciting.

The high-concept premise kicks in quite a long way in given the prevalence given to it in marketing. Allen's character proceeds to direct the picture blind, with the help of his long-time agent and the Chinese translator originally hired to interpret for the director of photography he has insisted upon hiring. What follows is a string of slapstick gags and fairly obvious bits of business as Allen's character tries to pretend that he is sighted. Meanwhile the film's real focus is in having him come to terms with the reason for his blindness which is so obvious to anyone who has read the plot synopsis that it seems doubly inexplicable that Allen feels compelled to introduce a new plot thread nearly two thirds of the way through (a psychologist tells his character that a reunion with his estranged son may help, prompting the introduction of a new character whose role in the plot is limited and whose function in the psychological and emotional themes is so obvious that it barely warrants him being there at all).

The film has the merit of not wandering off the plot completely as in Small Time Crooks, but there is again a sense that narrative divergence is not so much a result of an aesthetic or structural choice as Allen's inability to tell a proper story. The film is packed with one-dimensional characters who flit in and out as Allen tries to get to grips with his character's emotional and psychological longing for a woman he can not have, a theme the director has explored again and again since the beginning of his career. In more recent years there has been a melancholy and slightly creepy insistency to it though: he has become one of those people you meet at a party who seem funny at first but quickly make you feel uncomfortable because their obsession with some obscure fact or argument is clearly more deeply rooted than you really cared to know. Years of good (and great) filmmaking seems to have bored or frustrated Woody Allen to a point where he feels compelled to make movies which follow whatever narrative or thematic threads interest him while he is writing the script, all the while restating what he has said before and more eloquently. There is an artistic integrity to this, and Allen is probably still one of the American cinema's few authentic 'auteurs' (if the word has any value for you). Yet there is a lack of artistry to what he has written, a haphazard and perfunctory attitude which is vaguely disrespectful of the audience and uninteresting in artistic terms. If there is a master plan here, it is hard to discern. It seems more likely that Woody Allen has himself veered off into a psychic tangent where he is no longer able to tell the difference between invention and contrivance.

Even the parts of the film which do work are hamfisted and repetitive. The film is filled with pithy observation about relationships and bitchy snipes at the movie business which hit home about as forcefully as a feather duster. Yes there are bits that make you smile, but this is not good enough from a man who once had you helpless with laughter and tears seemingly without obvious effort. A man has a right to change gears, and human beings are not always in touch with the world around them, but though there is an admirable consistency in Allen's concerns, the rate at which he makes these films has finally taken its toll on the quality of the individual productions: it seems like he has simply run out of steam. On the strength of this most recent period in his work, he has nothing left to offer.

The same is true of Allen the performer. He is long past playing the kind of role he has given himself here, and while he is doing nothing that he has not done before... he is doing nothing that he has not done before. The actor is familiar enough with the rhythms of such a character to make it work, and he does his best, but his timing is off, his vocal styling is less precise than it should be, and his facial expressions are less goofy than they need to be to keep things amiably farcical. By contrast Leoni gives a very good performance as the ex-wife. She creates a very believable character and gives a strong sense of the mixture of strength and compassion needed to maintain her sense of herself in this situation. George Hamilton is initially hilarious as an executive producer for Williams' company, but he virtually disappears from the film when the script seems to have nothing left for him to do.

Perhaps when his contract with DreamWorks expires, Allen will surprise us all with a final twist in his chequered career. It would be a welcome development. But for now, for those for whom the name Woody Allen was once a guarantee of something fresh, sometimes funny, and usually genuinely worthwhile, Hollywood Ending is a depressing experience which leaves you feeling used and drained.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.