In "Hollywood Ending," an often ingenious, sometimes disappointing satire on modern moviemaking, Woody Allen plays a once-brilliant neurotic filmmaker who suddenly goes psychosomatically blind right before the shooting of his comeback vehicle.
Desperate not to blow his big chance, hypochondriac director Val Waxman (Allen) and his benevolently sleazy agent, Al Hack (Mark Rydell), try to hide his blindness from everyone -- cast, crew and, most of all, the studio executives, including Val's generous and supportive ex-wife, Ellie (Tea Leoni), who got him the job. Val goes on with the film, a modern New York remake of B-noir "City That Never Sleeps" (a 1953 John Auer movie set in Chicago), directing scenes without being able to see any of them, relying on first Al and later a diligent young Chinese translator (Barney Cheng) to be his "eyes."
Val approves designs without knowing what they are, blocks and directs actors without seeing them, and sets up shots that his Chinese cinematographer (Lu Yu, playing a joke version of Allen's collaborator, Zhao Fei) rightly thinks make no sense. This is Allen's satiric rip at modern formula studio moviemaking: all those films that seem to have been made by disconnected hacks, going through the motions. They might as well be blind, Allen is suggesting, because they direct without commitment or personal passion. In fact, Val actually functions better within the system when he's blind. Naturally argumentative and a perfectionist, he now docilely accepts anything that's handed to him, encouraging what the translator calls "random chaos," and is now eager to please his bosses, including Hal Yeager (Treat Williams), the slick studio executive who stole Ellie from him.
The joke of the film is that Val's blindness is ignored because he's protected by a personal relationship, while his "random chaos" is mistaken by some colleagues as genius, a rebellious defiance of convention that has led him to make daring choices and develop a bold new style.
But the deeper joke is that Allen's Val has been "blind" all along, so wrapped up in himself and his fantasy illnesses (which include hoof-and-mouth disease, black plague and elm blight) that he can't see what's really important -- like his relationship with smart, loyal Ellie and his shattered bond with son Tony (Mark Webber), a.k.a. shock rocker Scumbag X. Most of the other characters are "blind" as well, most obviously George Hamilton as omnipresent associate producer Ed, who serves no discernible function and can't speak without using cliches.
I've seen "Hollywood Ending" twice, and it improved on a second viewing. The premise may be outrageous, but the film is full of witty lines, delightful scenes and sharp performances -- including a wonderful portrayal by Leoni, Allen's best work as an actor since "Deconstructing Harry," a warm job by Rydell and a hilarious turn by Cheng as the translator. There's one marvelous restaurant scene between Leoni and Allen where they keep snapping back and forth between a dull-eyed confab about the movie and a vicious quarrel about what split them apart.
Of course, Allen is also susceptible to charges that have dogged him since "Husbands and Wives" and the breakup with Mia -- notably the complaint that at age 67 he still casts himself opposite young, beautiful actresses in their 20s and 30s, like the effervescent Leoni, Debra Messing ("Will and Grace") as Val's tarty actress-lover Lori and Tiffani Thiessen ("Beverly Hills 90210") as buxom movie star Sharon Bates, who tries to seduce sightless Val in her dressing room. But is this an aging roue's dream or simply a reflection of the real Hollywood and New York showbiz worlds, which are so youth-obsessed that it's common to see many real male stars in their 60s and 70s with much younger wives and companions?
"Hollywood Ending" has the feel of a little classic that somehow got away from its director, just as "City That Never Sleeps" gets disastrously away from Val. The nutty premise isn't always logically developed, and having an on-set Esquire journalist (Jodie Markell) nosing near the truth is a mistake. So, I think, is the decision not to show us any of Val's "City That Never Sleeps." But once again, Allen has given us something smart, funny and packed with delights, from the actors to the zingers to the swing-tune backgrounds to the golden-tinged images by Allen's new cinematographer, Wedigo von Schultzendorff ("The 13th Floor"). "Hollywood Ending" is not perfect, and neither are life or the movies. But you'd have to be blind yourself not to relish its qualities or laugh at its barbs.
"Hollywood Ending"3 Stars
Directed and written by Woody Allen; photographed by Wedigo von Schultzendorff; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designed by Santo Loquasto; produced by Letty Aronson. A DreamWorks Pictures release; opens Friday, May 3. Running time: 1:54. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexual material, drug references).
Val Waxman -- Woody Allen
Ellie -- Tea Leoni
Hal -- Treat Williams
Al Hack -- Mark Rydell
Lori -- Debra Messing
Sharon Bates -- Tiffani-Amber Thiessen Chinese Translator -- Barney Cheng
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times