In show business, survival depends on serial reinvention. Those celebrities who have perfected the routine are legendary for it — Madonna, Michael Jackson, Steven Spielberg (from Jaws to Private Ryan). Others are equally famous for always seeming consistent, if not tedious, like Mick Jagger or Robert Altman, maybe. Ingeniously, the industry offers ego-massaging wiggle room on both ends of this spectrum. Desire and delusion, creativity and vanity: a little shake-and-stir, and voila! reinvention starts to resemble cunning consistency, while sameness looks like a more discreet transformation.
Perhaps the premiere practitioner of this self-image sleight-of-hand is Woody Allen. Surely, one of Allen’s enduring appeals is his willingness to showcase his phobias, distastes, and petty concerns on one hand, and his arrogance and contempt on the other. All this while his refusal to participate in the business as such has made him, simultaneously, an admirable renegade and difficult personality. (We won’t even get into his personal life: the heart wants what the heart wants, etc.)
Allen’s dilemma is familiar: most simplistically, he’s caught between the business and art of movies. And despite his persistent fretting about this dilemma, he’s made a lot of movies, 31 in 34 years. These don’t win a lot of prizes or make tons of cash, but his “peers” (whoever they may be) call him brilliant. Occasionally, and notoriously, he’s tried other approaches. But if his Bergmanish films and work with “foreign” cinematographers didn’t exactly cement a new reputation as an art-filmmaker, to be fair, he did, somewhat bravely, stretch his skills to the point of breaking. Still, and stubbornly, his “fans” (whoever they may be) want comedies. And so, he relents. Repeatedly.
That said, the relenting this time is different than it has been in the past. That isn’t to say that Allen’s new movie, Hollywood Ending, doesn’t wholly and tiresomely subscribe to the Allen formula. That is, Allen plays Val Waxman, a neurotic New York-based director who loses his woman and fusses about it, then wins her back, or not. (As he’s told various interviewers, he has a “limited range as an actor” and knows what he does well). It’s the same movie he’s made many times before, and while there is an audience for that movie, it’s a small one. This means that, again and again, promotions people need to come up with other ways to sell the product — especially since the director whose name means the most in any Woody Allen movie will not participate, remaining pathologically (though quite understandably) averse to press, to making nice, to showing up with smiles and nods, if not handshakes.
Until now. The reinvention of Hollywood Ending is not the film, but the 66-year-old Allen as self-promoter. This year, with his second DreamWorks picture, he is a changed man. And he is everywhere. Turner Movie Classics is running a mini-fest of his films, and a documentary, Woody Allen: A Life in Film, on 4 May. He went to the Oscars. He’s going to Cannes. He’s bringing the wife along on promotional road trips. He’s speaking politely with reporters who have little to ask him except, gee, how come he likes New York so much?
This was precisely the case during a recent promotional moment this past week, wherein Allen went strolling through Central Park with Katie Couric. They paused to admire the sunny day or a bit of garbage floating in the pond, and studiously avoided the looks of passers-by, pretending really hard that they were 1) enjoying New York, and 2) doing it alone. In the midst of all this conviviality, Katie actually asked him why he likes New York. He mumbled something about growing up there, but didn’t really have an answer, because the question was, of course, a nonquestion, or rather, a set-up for yet another display of Allen’s affection for Manhattan. Suddenly, such affection is all the rage. Suddenly, he’s esteemed for having it, for being so resilient about it. And so what if he’s cashing in? Everyone else is.
Hollywood Ending is, for the most part, set in NYC, the NYC that Allen knows and loves, that is, the white-looking, wealthy one. It’s mostly used as a point of comparison for the slimier slickness of L.A., and both locations are rendered by shorthand. A tanned studio exec extols the fabulosity of the sunny clime, then has to get off the phone to go get his skin cancer treatment (the other Walking L.A. Joke is George Hamilton, who plays some kind of executive, but it only matters that he’s George Hamilton). Back in New York, Val sits on a park bench with his ex-wife Ellie (Téa Leoni). The sun filters gently through the trees, the grass looks almost too green, the sky perfectly blue. It’s a far cry from the famously thrilling bench scene of a Manhattan. It is, rather, lite.
As is the rest of Hollywood Ending, which, for all the artist’s professed devotion to New York, is set indoors — in hotel rooms and restaurants, and on movie sets. (Which does make sense, given that Val’s directing a circa ’40s gangster movie, but still, why shoot a movie in beloved New York and not use it?) Val has a lot riding on this picture. The two-time Oscar-winner, now washed up (i.e., deemed too psycho to work with), is reduced to shooting deodorant commercials in Canada. Ellie taps him to direct a project she’s been shepherding from her new base in L.A., The City That Never Sleeps. This despite bad blood between them, owing to the fact that she left him for slick studio head Hal (Treat Williams). She argues (with Hal, pacing and swiping at the air with her boxing gloves as she does so) that Val deserves a second chance in the business. He wants a second chance with her.
The primary joke is run into the ground almost as soon as it comes up: Val goes psychosomatically blind just before production begins. In order to keep the gig and prove himself to Ellie, he pretends he can see, enlisting the help of the NYU student (Barney Cheng) working as translator for the Chinese cinematographer Val insisted on hiring. The film, of course, is awful — like the director, you never see a frame, but you don’t have to. Comments fly concerning the strangeness of Val’s “vision,” the actors are perpetually confused, and the cinematographer is increasingly furious at the film’s incoherence.
Adding to the confusion, Val has hired his current girlfriend, the film’s designated bimbette Lori (Debra Messing), for a small part. Hoping to “tone up” for her one day of shooting, she conveniently goes off to a spa partway through production. This means Allen can work on rekindling his flame with Ellie. Before he goes blind, Val mostly insults her fiancé the studio head (she, in turn, accuses him of posing as the “Great American Artist”). When he’s blind, he gets her to help keep his secret, which she does, mainly, it appears, because she still loves him. Just why is unclear, except that this is the premise of any Woody Allen movie, that the young (sometimes very young) woman costar adores him.
Other plot points in Hollywood Ending are equally under-motivated. It’s not clear why press-phobic Val agrees to having an Esquire reporter (Jodie Markell) on the set 24 hours a day, who provides a weary and wholly unnecessary voiceover recounting of events. It’s less clear why he goes into the dressing room of his leading lady (Tiffani Thiessen), knowing she will be coming on to him and knowing that he can’t reveal his blindness. When she does come on to him (because, well, because that’s what leading ladies do with their cranky old directors), Val trips over furniture and mistakes her plump breast for a “throw pillow.”
Perhaps most drearily, Val’s long-estranged son pops up near film’s end, for one scene, as evidence of the trauma that has brought on the psychosomatic hysteria. (This is long past the tie you might have cared about any such reason.) This kid, Tony (Mark Webber), is a good-natured green-haired punk whose teeny apartment is filled with empty pizza boxes and a drum kit. Generous despite his father’s continuing cracks about his hair, his new name (Scumbag X), and his aspirations, Tony actually seems much healthier than he has any right to be.
Even aside from the fact that the green-haired punk joke is, like, dated, this inept, unfunny handling of the father-son divide indicates the film’s general trouble: it’s smug and self-involved, not reinvented at all.