Hollywood Ending

on May 03, 2002 by Francesca Dinglasan
   Woody Allen has always placed himself in stark contrast to the Hollywood system of moviemaking, viewing himself as an authentic, rebellious auteur in a cinematic landscape that increasingly resembles the suburbs of the 1950s: safe, bland, conformist and exceedingly middle-brow. In his new film "Hollywood Ending," Allen appears ripe to assault the homogenizing power of the studio system, but, alas, the auteur present in this film is not the caustic comic genius behind such works as "Stardust Memories" and "Manhattan." He is, instead, the more benign and gentle filmmaker Allen has become since hooking up with DreamWorks. What results in "Hollywood Ending" is not acerbic satire, but an amusing diversion that delivers laughs without depth.

   Allen plays Val Waxman, a two-time Oscar-winning director whose heyday peaked years ago. After being fired from a deodorant commercial, Val returns to New York City to discover that a golden opportunity has been placed in his lap: His second ex-wife Ellie (Tea Leoni), an executive at Galaxy Pictures, has convinced the studio head (Treat Williams), who also happens to be the man for whom she left Val, that her former husband would be the perfect choice to direct the studio's latest big-budget project. Val, desperate for a comeback, signs on to the film and immediately displays the qualities that made him a cinematic pariah: He demands script changes and hires a Chinese cinematographer whose best work was done for the Red Army.

   However, days before principal photography is to start, Val loses his sight to psychosomatic blindness. His agent Al (Mark Rydell) convinces him to pretend that he can see, since losing the project would be the true death of Val's career. Al convinces the cinematographer's translator (Barney Cheng) to act as Val's eyes, resulting in one of the film's most inspired and unexpected comedic highlights. The pairing of Allen and Cheng provides some big laughs as the translator attempts to become Val's protector as well as his creative sense. Dressed in bland sweaters and black, horned-rimmed glasses, Cheng not only visually mirrors Allen, he also displays the filmmaker's uncanny comedic timing.

   "Hollywood Ending" is content to stay in the genre of farce, and that is, overall, the film's weakness. Allen is unable to sustain the comedic pace, and in eschewing overt, satiric bite, the film moves, somewhat unsuccessfully, between slapstick and sentimentality. The revelation of Val's blindness is a somewhat maudlin letdown, and the jabs at Hollywood are as cutting as Charmin toilet paper. What saves the film is the overriding sense of fun that Allen and his cast appear to be having. There is an exuberant chaos in the film that is infectious, with Allen peppering the script with enough self-deprecating one-liners ("In France I'm a genius!") that a strong laugh is always salvaged when needed. In "Hollywood Ending," there's the feeling that a great, satiric opportunity has gone unfulfilled, but Allen turns an otherwise disappointing experience into a pleasurable one. Starring Woody Allen, Tea Leoni, Treat Williams, Mark Rydell, George Hamilton, Debra Messing and Barney Cheng. Directed and written by Woody Allen. Produced by Letty Aronson. A DreamWorks release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for some drug references and sexual material. Running time: 112 min

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