When watching a good Woody Allen movie, viewers are not only entertained for about an hour and a half, but they also get a great glimpse into the director’s psyche. At his best, his films have themes that are almost transparently autobiographical. Just watch the achingly bittersweet Annie Hall and witness how ruefully he views his real-life relationship with costar Diane Keaton. Bullets Over Broadway, arguably Allen’s greatest film of the 1990’s deals with his continuing struggle to stay creative and relavent. Released in 1994, the film is one a scant few bright spots for the director’s later career, and the urgency of getting his art across comes across loudly.
The film is set in the 1920’s, and is about David Shayne (John Cusack), a struggling playwright who is trying to get his work produced. The only way it seems he can find success is if he partners up with mobster, Nick Valenti (Joe Viterreli). Not only must David suffer working with criminals for his play, he must also cast Nick’s atrociously untalented girlfriend, Olive (Jennifer Tilly) in a pivotal role. He also has to deal with a cast of actors who all have petty egos and selfish agendas — none more so than the play’s star, Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), a grande diva of the stage who strokes David’s ego and pulls him into a self-serving affair, so that she comes off wonderfully on stage. Because of the stress and distractions of working with a mobster, David’s work suffers, but he gets unexpected aide from Olive’s bodyguard, Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), a sensitive writer hidden under the guise of a tough muscle. Cheech and David begin to collaborate, and as the latter becomes more dedicated to the play, an artistic passion emerges from Chazz that can prove to be quite fatal.
Allen opted not to star in this film, though David is obviously meant to be him. Wisely, David isn’t written as a charicature of Allen (like in Celebrity), though the constant struggle David is facing with remaining true to his art, while appeasing his financial backers and cast, is something that Allen undoubtedly battles throughout his career. His message is profound and poignant in that all David initially wanted to do was just write, but must literally sign a pact with the devil to achieve his goal.
This is possibly Allen’s best script since Hannah and Her Sisters. To call this movie “his best of the 1990’s” is misleading, because it’s one of his strongest in his career. Very few of his films combine his trademark cerebral clowning, with some outlandish slapstick and biting satire on quest of an artist to remain independent, creatively, while still having to keep an eye on finance and commerce.
Allen has assembled, as usual, a top-shelf cast that performs wonderfully under his direction. Cusack does especially well as Allen’s alterego, never descending into cheap imitation (Kenneth Branagh’s particularly annoying “Woody Allen schtick” is a major reason Celebrity sunk). Palminteri is even better as the closet scribe — he shows a sensitivity and decency, despite being a lowlife. Allen has always been one of the most successful directors with women, and he does magic worthy of Merlin with Tilly, pulling a performance out of the actress that has her actually steal scenes. Armed with a Judy Holliday on acid aura (complete with a grating, helium-soaked squawk of a voice), Tilly does herself proud. The best of the lot, though is Wiest, who won an Oscar for her portrayal. Hilarious, vain, tender and self-centered, she scores comic points as the Tallulah Bankhead-like star.
Underneath the manic comedy, there is an urgency in David’s need to do well and to succeed. One gets the idea that Allen in real life feels the same pressure.