Friday, June 20, 2008

Bullets Over Broadway

The temptation, in writing about Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, is to simply start quoting lines of dialogue from it, and never stop. It's just that kind of film, though it's probably for the best that I resist the temptation here — writing about comedy is never even nearly as funny as actually seeing and hearing it done well. It's certainly done well in this film, too. As in its predecessor, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Woody is at the peak of his comedic gifts, writing with a crackling ease that makes the jokes detonate like depth charges. By the time you start laughing, the jokes are already past you, tucked smoothly into the flow of conversation. Woody hasn't been this purely, naturally funny, making pure unvarnished comedy, since Broadway Danny Rose, a film that not incidentally bears some similarities to this one both in its (overly?) broad Italian caricatures and its focus on a vulgar mobster's moll causing problems for a nebbishy intellectual. In this case, John Cusack is the intellectual in question, taking on the kind of role that Woody would usually inhabit himself, as the struggling playwright David Shayne. Cusack is a very different kind of nebbish, and he avoids the pitfalls of too many actors who think that being in a Woody Allen movie means you have to fully inhabit the Woody persona. Instead, Cusack brings his own earnest energy to the role, making David less a bundle of neuroses than a young man struggling to figure out his own place in the world. His nervous energy, his tics, his stammering, are not merely attempts to channel the film's director, but genuine outgrowths of the conflict in this character between ambition, guilt, and integrity.

In the film, set in Jazz Age 1920s New York, David is forced by economic necessity to get his wordy, darkly psychological play bankrolled by the gangster Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli), who stipulates that his girlfriend Olive (Jennifer Tilly) should have an important role. This is the first of, it turns out, many concessions that David will be required to make in order to get his play seen, since for Woody this story is a perfect vehicle for the eternal debate about art and commerce. In that respect, Woody doesn't miss the chance to take quite a few potshots at his own work, and he places the words of some of his harshest critics into the mouth of the mob hitman Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), who's assigned to bodyguard Olive and consequently winds up observing the play's rehearsals. Cheech's main criticism is one that has too often been lobbed at Woody's own writing: "real people don't talk like that." Considering the parodic nature of the dialogue in David's play — tortured psychobabble in purposefully obscure language, peppered with strings of adjectives that sound like they're being read from a thesaurus — it's hard not to agree with Cheech, who at first is positioned as a plebeian enemy of art but soon becomes the perverse voice of reason in the film.

Also in the play's cast is Helen Sinclair (Woody favorite Dianne Wiest), channeling Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard in an absolutely hilarious and unforgettable performance. She calls to mind Norma right from her introduction, throwing a fit when she first reads David's play, outraged that she's being asked to play a frumpy housewife and not a glorious starlet, storming down a staircase done up in a 20s flapper outfit and looking glamorously enraged. She is Norma without the creepy, vampiric side — or perhaps only Norma before things have degenerated quite that far. She's the glamorous Norma, Norma the way she'd like to think she's seen by her public, the Norma who descends the stairs in a dreamy daze at the end of Sunset Boulevard, imagining the adoring throngs below. Helen is more than just a tribute to Billy Wilder's aging silent movie goddess, though. She's one of Woody's great creations, a larger than life figure who is compelled to transform every moment of her offstage life into a drama worthy of the hammiest theater. Her dialogue is as tortured and wordy as David's play, and she turns David's hesitant overtures towards her into high drama — and high comedy — by overacting her response to him in the most ridiculous fashion. "Don't speak!" she shouts, a standard melodramatic line that soon takes on new significance because Helen takes it quite literally, as an order, even an imperative. When David still struggles to express himself to her, she drowns him out with a chorus of, "Don't speak," and when that doesn't work resorts to physically restraining him and covering his mouth with her hands. In one hilarious scene, she's trying to gag him with her arms and shawl, and, in what seems like a bit of ad-libbed accidental humor, Wiest realizes that she still has her cigarette holder in her other hand, jams it into her mouth at a jaunty angle, and proceeds to cover Cusack's mouth with both hands.

Wiest also gets one of the film's best lines, when she's describing to David just how big of a success he could be. "The world will open to you like an oyster," she says, then pauses, as though realizing that she's being too subtle. "No, not like an oyster. The world will open to you like a magnificent vagina." It's brilliant, not only because it finally lays bare the sexual implications of that clichéd catchphrase, but because it fits her character so perfectly in its plain-spoken vulgarity. Wiest is able to make lines that would never come off for another actor seem absolutely right coming from her mouth. She nails the hammy, life-is-theater mentality of Helen right from the scene when she first arrives at the theater and delivers an epic, ridiculous speech about all the roles she's played in the past. The shot is framed so that Helen is the only character in the foreground, gesticulating wildly and throwing her head back with feigned emotion as, behind her, the other characters cluster to watch, the perspective making them all look blurred and tiny behind the impressive figure of Helen.

Helen's obsession with carrying art into life is mirrored, in a distorted way, by the struggles of David to find a balance in his own life between art and reality. For David initially, and certainly for his principled artist friend Sheldon (Rob Reiner), who proudly declares that his art is misunderstood and will never be seen in public, art is a privileged and sacred trust that imbues the artist with rights and responsibilities outside of normal society. For Sheldon, artists create their own "moral universe," a phrase of such casually stated moral relativism that its sinister implications only become clear over time. Sheldon applies this edict in his own life and suggests that David do the same, disregarding conventional ideas about morality to the extent that when they pose the question of being able to save either the works of Shakespeare or an "anonymous" person from a burning building, both of them choose the plays without hesitation. Woody viciously mocks the self-serving moral rationalizations of these self-declared artists, who deign to place themselves above the rest of humanity, as though to be a great artist one needn't trouble oneself with people at all. But it is precisely because David does not concern himself with how real people act that his play is so devoid of genuine feeling, and so awkward in its language. He does not seem to realize the difference between dialogue that is purposefully stylized for some artistic purpose (as it is here and in most of Woody's films) and dialogue that simply strains the credibility by putting the actors through unnecessary contortions of speech. The unstated implication is that, in distancing himself from society's moral standards, the artist also risks losing touch with the humanity that is essential to any work of art. David's morality is put to the test, in fact, by the mobster Cheech, who literally puts into practice the idea that Sheldon and David approved of in the abstract: that art is more valuable even than individual human lives.

Although, as usual, Woody is obviously exploring deeper themes through this material, Bullets Over Broadway is first and foremost another smart and substantial pure comedy for him, coming hot on the heels of Manhattan Murder Mystery and certainly matching the previous film for sheer laughs. And even if the film works best as pure verbal comedy, it's also a stylishly shot period parody with touches of noir, melodrama, and gangster pictures. Not to mention an inquiry into the artist's connections to society and morality, and on the difference between abstract ideas and the reality of the way the world works.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Excellent. And another reminder of what his films used to be like before they became such a chore. Wiest's performance is a work of comic genius, as is Tilly's. Yes, she's hard to cast but once anyone has cast her they get results. Check out her work in the undervalued Relax -- It's Just Sex.

Anonymous said...

Reading about Woody Allen's body of work recently - I think he's at 36 films and counting - the three that Allen was referencing as early as last year when pressed to name his favorites, or the ones he felt were his best, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Husbands and Wives and this one came up.

I remember enjoying Bullets Over Broadway when I saw it in a theater in 1994 and your article made me want to revisit it. I don't know if people realize how great Dianne Weist is. She was nominated for an Academy Award here, but no one seemed to utilize her in film like Allen did.

Ed Howard said...

It's funny, I was just today counting up how many films Allen's made. And his next film after the forthcoming Vicky Cristina Barcelona will be his 40th feature as a director. Pretty amazing.

Dianne Wiest is definitely underrated, probably because she doesn't appear in many interesting films outside of Woody's. The sad fact is that there just aren't many substantial parts out there for actresses who aren't traditional bombshells. And Wiest, pretty as she is, is just too quirky for that. Woody always seemed to know how to get the best out of her -- his casting is impeccable in general -- while everyone else just pushes her into roles as the quirky best friend or something.

I'm intrigued to see she's in Charlie Kaufman's first directorial feature Synecdoche, New York. Maybe that will be a meatier role for her again.