It's as sad and painful to report as it is to experience, but "Hollywood Ending" makes the conclusion inescapable: Woody Allen has become his own worst enemy.
Allen is, of course, one of the iconic figures in American comic cinema. But where once his presence in the films he wrote and directed was a good part of what made them unforgettable, his appearance in "Hollywood Ending" makes parts of it close to unwatchable. When a film's bad guy, in this case Treat Williams' Neanderthal Hollywood producer, seems more worthy of the girl than Allen's nominal hero, you know something is wrong.
The characters Allen plays, in this case a film director named Val Waxman, are the same nebbishy Manhattan-loving neurotics they have always been. What's changed is that as the actor has gotten older, those once-engaging character traits have ossified and lost their charm. In fact, they've become so strident and dyspeptic that they completely throw you out of the picture. It especially strains credulity to have Allen's characters invariably end up with their youthful, attractive co-stars (in this case a producer played by Tea Leoni). No matinee idol has more insistently cultivated his on-screen romantic image than Allen, who gets the girl no matter how unlikely the scenario. This even though the sight of him passionately embracing those increasingly younger women gets harder and harder to take seriously.
In fairness to Allen the actor, it's been quite some time since Allen the writer-director has given him consistently worthwhile material to work with. Despite the near-reverence Allen's frequently surrounded by (one co-star calls him "this amazing genius ... this legend"), of the seven big-screen films he's written, directed and starred in over the past decade, no more than one or two are worth a second look.
Meager though it ends up, "Hollywood Ending" is initially promising. It's a movie-business story, a genre that tends to get the juices flowing; it's got an effective cast; and, at least until Allen's increasingly unpleasant presence drains the film of all discernible life, it does not fail to amuse.
"Hollywood Ending" opens at a "creative meeting" of the top people at Galaxie Studio, including head man Hal (Williams), his right hand Ed (George Hamilton) and a producer, Ellie (Leoni), who happens to be both Val's ex-wife and Hal's current fiancee.
Galaxie has a new project, "Streets of New York," which Ellie thinks would be perfect for Val, but because he's such a neurotic perfectionist, it's been years since anyone's trusted him with a feature. In fact, Val's funny first appearance is in a Canadian blizzard, preparing to shoot a deodorant commercial. "Have you ever seen Canada?" he asks his even-younger-than-Ellie girlfriend Lori (Debra Messing) when he gets back. "Now I know why there's no crime up there."
Even though, as his agent Al Hack (a well-cast Mark Rydell) reminds him, his last offer was for a geriatric diaper ad, Val is reluctant to take an offer from his ex and her new beau. "He's a philistine, she's a quisling, they have a religious conflict," he says before concluding, "I would kill for this job, but the people I'd like to kill are offering me the job."
While all this is not exactly sidesplitting, it's more amusing than what happens when Ellie and Val confront each other for the first time, a meeting which sends his character into whine overdrive. This "bicker and then bond" story line plays as it did with Helen Hunt in last year's "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," and Val's persona is deeply off-putting, an unintentional warning about the perils of staying that neurotic that deeply into middle age.
Equally unhappy is "Hollywood Ending's" one-joke plot complication, the notion that Val's anxiety gets so intense it brings on a case of hysterical blindness. Val as a sightless director pushes this film to concentrate more and more on his incessant worrying and complaining to the exclusion of all else, making it progressively less and less funny.
Paradoxically, as with John Cusack in "Bullets Over Broadway" and Sean Penn in "Sweet and Lowdown," Allen has had good luck over the past decade casting other men in the starring roles. But much like the film's Val, who feels compelled to put his girlfriend in "Streets of New York" even though everyone knows she's completely inappropriate, he can't not give himself the lead. Whether this is art imitating life or life imitating art, it's an unhappy situation all around.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for some drug references and sexual material. Times guidelines: Lots of sexual innuendo.
Woody Allen...Val Waxman
Mark Rydell...Al Hack
In association with Gravier Productions, released by DreamWorks Pictures. Director Woody Allen. Producer Letty Aronson. Executive producer Stephen Tenenbaum. Screenplay Woody Allen. Cinematographer Wedigo Von Schultzendorff. Editor Alisa Lepselter. Costumes Melissa Toth. Production design Santo Loquasto. Art director Tom Warren. Set decorator Regina Graves. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times