Sunday, February 19, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.16: Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery/Bullets Over Broadway

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery and 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway.

MMM Grade: 68 (B)
Following the ugly dissolution of his creative and romantic relationship with Mia Farrow (combined with the release of the nakedly emotional masterpiece Husbands and Wives), it’s both unsurprising and refreshing that Woody Allen decided to take it relatively easy with his next couple of films. Manhattan Murder Mystery was based on a murder mystery-subplot excised from Annie Hall by Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman. Allen and Brickman got back together to rewrite the film as its own separate feature in 1993, and when Mia Farrow understandably chose not to work with Allen again, the director’s old muse Diane Keaton was invited back for a proper Annie Hall reunion.
Larry Lipton (Allen) and his wife Carol (Keaton) are a happily married couple, but they have their differences. He loves to go to hockey games and watch Bob Hope movies on TV. She’s a bigger fan of opera and likes to go to Wagner concerts (“I can’t listen to too much Wagner or I want to conquer Poland”). The two meet their friendly but painfully dull neighbors, Paul and Lillian House (Jerry Adler and Lynn Cohen). When Lillian, who claimed to be in great health, dies suddenly of a heart attack, Carol begins to suspect Paul of murder (Larry: “You’ve been watching too much Double Indemnity!”); their friend Ted, whom Carol is attracted to, agrees. Larry thinks they’re both nuts, but he can’t get his wife to stop pursuing it, and he’s often too wrapped up in his infatuation with hot young writer Marcia (Anjelica Huston).
Allen gives frequent shout-outs to Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, and Allen chose to bring the direct, hand-held cinematography from Husbands and Wives for some reason, despite the vastly differing tones between the two. The film is mostly a light romantic-comedy in the style of Annie Hall meets the early, funny films of the past. There’s never any question of whether or not Allen and Keaton will split up or get killed (if indeed they face any real danger). Rather, it’s just another opportunity to see the chemistry between the neurotic Allen and the daffy Keaton again. The film ultimately has nothing on its mind other than being enjoyable and entertaining, but it meets that modest ambition, so in the end it’s alright.
Bullets Over Broadway Grade: 70 (B)
Allen’s next film, Bullets Over Broadway, is light entertainment in the same vein, and although the film certainly taps into Allen’s vaudeville past, respect for the jazz age, and personal hang-ups as a writer, it’s all mostly an entertaining diversion. It is, however, a rather lively entertaining diversion, and while there’s certainly feeling of treading familiar ground (Broadway Danny Rose is a lot stronger), it’s a more than welcome addition to Allen’s filmography.
1928 New York: David Shayne (John Cusack) is a young playwright who absolutely, positively refuses to compromise on any and all accounts. He’s a great writer, damn it, and his work should go on as is. When his new play Gods of Our Fathers finds financing, it looks like it’s his big break as a writer-director. There’s just one catch theatre-owner Julian Marx (Jack Warden) has: the funding has been given by notorious mobster Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli), and he wants his ditzy mistress girlfriend Olive (Jennifer Tilly) to have a role. Shayne is apoplectic, but he relents so long as he can have his two ideal (read: troubled) leads: alcoholic has-been Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest) and compulsive-eater Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent). Rehearsals are troubled: Sinclair is a diva, supporting actress Eden Brent (Tracy Ullman) has a dog that Sinclair hates, Olive is completely talentless and difficult to work with, and she’s begun an affair with Purcell that could get everyone killed. Furthermore, Shayne’s work is didactic and too cerebral…until Olive’s gangster bodyguard Cheech (Chazz Palmintieri) starts making suggestions on how to revise the play (and eventually ends up re-writing the whole thing).
It would be no surprise if Allen’s co-writer Douglas McGrath was brought in to tweak the gangster-dialogue. Allen isn’t exactly known for his street-smarts (it wouldn’t surprise me, however, if Allen chose to name the gangster Valenti after the head of the MPAA). The film is, however, recognizably an Allen work, complete with a Woody Allen character. Allen’s a bit too young to play an idealistic playwright, however, so the role is instead filled ably by John Cusack. Cusack occasionally goes a bit too over-the-top with his Woody impression (and the yelling scenes are sometimes a bit much as well), but he’s mostly more than up to the task as a man who’s never willing to compromise his integrity…until he is.
Cusack’s Allen-surrogate, however, isn’t the film’s key asset. Rather, the colorful supporting cast provides most of the film’s biggest laughs, from Tilly’s Oscar-nominated turn as the bubble-headed, narcissistic Olive (on the idea of masochism: “What is she, retarded?”) to Rob Reiner as Cusack’s pretentious writer-friend to Harvey Fierstien as Sinclair’s agent. Best of all are Wiest and Palmintieri. Wiest’s specialty is often playing overly-romantic, high-strung characters (see: her Oscar-winning role in Hannah and Her Sisters) or warm-hearted mothers (Edward Scissorhands, Rabbit Hole). Sinclair is a wonderfully liberated character for her, an egotistical souse whose romantic relationship with Shayne is motivated entirely by his talent as an artist (and even then, he didn’t write the draft of the play she fell in love with). The hilarious performance won Wiest her second Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (although Uma Thurman’s performance in Pulp Fiction was robbed).
Palmintieri is the film’s secret weapon, however, in large part because the character is essential to prove the film’s point. Shayne is hailed by some as a budding Chekhov or Eugene O’Neill, but his work is laughably stilted and pretentious (perhaps his comedy would be stronger?). It’s an imitation of another artist’s work, and it takes Palmintieri’s Cheech to prove it to him. Here’s an uneducated man who’s spent his life killing people, but he knows how people really talk, and Shayne doesn’t. Ultimately, Shayne is not the artist he thought he was. Hilariously, Cheech takes his new talent seriously and (SPOILER) kills Olive when he decides that she’s ruining his play. His rationalization for her murder: “Olive, I thinkyou should know this: you’re a horrible actress.”
Bullets Over Broadway sometimes echoes too many of Allen’s previous works (Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose), includes Mary Louise-Parker in a nothing role as Cusack’s supportive girlfriend, and has the unfortunate addition of a stereotypical black housemaid who wisecracks to Olive (Woody Allen perhaps doesn’t spend time with many African-Americans). Ultimately, though, it’s a wildly entertaining film, and Allen didn’t have very many of those left in him.

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