THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Saturday, November 19, 1994 TAG: 9411190095 SECTION: DAILY BREAK PAGE: E7 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Movie Review SOURCE: BY MAL VINCENT, MOVIE CRITIC LENGTH: Medium: 86 lines
IS WOODY ALLEN desperate, or is it an accident that he's decided, at long last, to get funny again and give his fans what they really wanted in the first place?
``Bullets Over Broadway'' is an all-out farce - an effort to get outright laughs. It may, or may not, be a coincidence that it comes after the relatively unsuccessful ``Manhattan Murder Mystery'' and ``Husbands and Wives'' as well as in the wake of the disastrous publicity surrounding his clashes with Mia and his romance with Soon-Yi. Be that as it may, ``Bullets'' survives on two very funny performances (from Dianne Wiest and Chazz Palminteri) and little else.
The setting is the flamboyant theatrical world of Broadway in the 1920s - a world in which bigger-than-life behavior and bootleg hootch are commonplace.
A novice playwright (played by baby-faced John Cusack as overly naive) has a chance to direct his first play - something called ``God of Our Fathers.'' In order to get the play on stage, though, he has to sell-out, make compromises and even humiliate himself. Jack Warden, as a producer, is getting the backing from the underworld. This means, among other things, that a substantial part has to be given to the gum-smacking, screechy-voiced Olive Neal, played by the delightful, if overextended, Jennifer Tilly. (Tilly's act is initially humorous, but it gets old fast.) Just to be sure, she behaves herself at rehearsals, the boss has sent along a ``bodyguard,'' played by Palminteri.
When the play needs rewriting, it is the uneducated Palminteri who makes the best suggestions, telling the posturing playwright that ``Youse don't write the way people talk.'' The idea that a man of the street knows more about real theater than all the phonies is a likable one, and Palminteri easily steals the movie.
Louder and more unavoidable, though, is Wiest as Helen Sinclair, a former star and constant tippler, who immediately sees her chance to play up to the boy-playwright's vanity - and get him to enlarge her role. She drops names of his heroes like ``Max Anderson and Gene O'Neill'' as if they were candy to a child. ``You're a budding O'Neill and who am I?'' she purrs, ``just a vain Broadway legend.''
In a more raucous moment, she informs him that ``I'm still a star! I don't play frumps or virgins.''
Aside from these two performers, there is an ensemble of lesser contributors. Tracey Ullman, given far too little to make an impression, plays an aging ingenue who continually pampers her little dog. Jim Broadbent, the Brit with that funny face, plays a matinee idol with an eating problem. His waist line is spreading as his career thins.
If you love theater, you should catch this, but if you want something with the brittle, witty, sophisticated patter of an ``All About Eve,'' you'll be disappointed. This broad farce isn't even a contender, although it should have been. Allen borrows liberally from good wits - Oscar Wilde, Alexander Woolcott, Dorothy Parker - the best. Since it's so reckless, you can't really accuse him of stealing - just mimicking.
Allen is America's reigning comic genius, no matter what he does in his private life. The surprising thing is that he stoops here to having characters bump into furniture and fall over each other. This is perhaps his funniest movie since ``Broadway Danny Rose'' (another combination of underworld and Broadway), but it does something that Woody seldom does - it begs for laughs. His droll asides speak to us of life and death in a way that makes us think at the same time we laugh.
This, at best, is second-rate, unimportant Woody Allen. It tries much too hard and delivers only the obvious. Even at that, second-rate Woody is funnier than any other writer-director currently turning out comedy. MEMO: MOVIE REVIEW
``Bullets Over Broadway''
Cast: John Cusack, Dianne Wiest, Tracey Ullman, Jack Warden, Chazz
Palminteri, Jennifer Tilly, Rob Reiner, Mary-Louise Parker, Jim
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath
MPAA rating: R (gangland violence, language)
Mal's rating: two and a half stars
Locations: Naro Expanded Cinema in Norfolk, Lynnhaven in Virginia
Beach ILLUSTRATION: MIRAMAX photo
Jennifer Tilly and Chazz Palminteri star in Woody Allen's ``Bullets