Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Woody Allen)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

In the context of Woody Allen’s career, Bullets Over Broadway is roughly equivalent to Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry — not in the sense of genre but in the sense that both films are meditations on the nature of art, and in the end they come to opposite conclusions. The artist in Hitchcock’s film is the true hero of the picture, John Forsythe as the painter who finds a way to liberate those around them, to see themselves anew, to live fully at last. The artists in Bullets Over Broadway are the enemy: hopeless egomaniacs, fornicators, desperate prisoners of themselves, mobsters, bastards, the pretentious blowhards always mocked in Allen’s films. John Cusack is the man who wants to make the charisma part of his desperately normal world, longing to break out, swept into a hardened, laugh-a-minute nightmare in Prohibition-era New York.

Cusack’s character (he is, admittedly, playing Woody, but he does a better job of it than anyone except Allen and, well, Owen Wilson) is surrounded, as he at last gets the opportunity to direct his play, by people and Artists and must finally make a choice. Chazz Palminteri is a gangster and ghostwriter who kills in the name of his art and ultimately dies for it. Meanwhile, the play itself, once a form of personal expression for the hero, has grown into something altogether different, something on a Higher Plane, and the painful reality may be that it no longer serves its necessary purpose for him. Bullets is really about not compromising, about letting the world come to you instead of the other way around, but it does this not by putting the role of the villain on the usual Hollywood nincompoops but on genuinely brilliant people who have simply allowed their humanity to vanish. As usual, Allen finds the comings and goings of the pretentious perfectos simultaneously transparent and delightful, enriched by his Kubrickian awareness that they will all be equal in the end, and their immortality will be worthless to them. Like Linus used to say, “five hundred years from now, who’ll know the difference?”

The cast Allen and Juliet Taylor assemble here is the best of the director’s career, embodying and enlivening the varied personalities of his invention, and perhaps the best of any modern comedy. The play is populated by a cast of truly delightful nuts: Jennifer Tilly is an entitled gangster’s moll whose presence is the sole reason the production is able to get funding; her flat acting, grating voice and tendency to stir up disaster are the catalyst of much of the tension in every connected life that ensues. Dianne Wiest won an Oscar for her over-the-top portrayal of the larger than life stage legend Helen Sinclair, whose pretension and charisma easily seduce Cusack’s David Shayne. Jim Broadbent is the dignified, overindulgent leading man Warner Purcell who can’t keep away from the catering table or out of Tilly’s pants. And Tracey Ullman appears as an awkward, excessively polite but unexpectedly vindictive actress who wanders around holding a chihuahua, one of Ullman’s many almost supernaturally complete comic creations. On the sidelines is the even more vital presence of Chazz Palminteri, as a bodyguard keeping an eye on Tilly’s Olive on behalf of her dangerous Mob boyfriend who becomes fixated on the problems with the play and — amidst much tough posturing — insists on helping David rework and rewrite it, with the upshot of a gorgeous, surreal, almost Hopper-like shot of the two of them in a bar together with pages of work in front of them. This is to say nothing of so many others lending the film their hearts in full: Mary-Louise Parker, Jack Warden, Rob Reiner, even Harvey Fierstein.

This was only the second Woody Allen comedy in which Allen did not appear, and his absence allows it to rise above the limitations of his own comic persona. (For one thing, because Cusack is so much more handsome than Allen and more composed than the characters he plays, it’s far easier to buy that two women in the film would be interested in him — and despite the intentionally stilted nature of some of his dialogue, that a Broadway producer would take him seriously enough to work one of his plays in the first place.) On top of all that, it’s the most quotable and effortlessly funny film he’s made in the last thirty years (Radio Days may generate a harder laugh or two, but not in such quantity), from Helen’s remark to David about the world opening up to him “like a magnificent vagina” to Olive’s response to the definition of the word “masochistic,” which I won’t invoke in text without the crucial factor of Tilly’s voice to sell it.

In Harry, Forsythe tells Shirley MacLaine just after proposing to her that they, the painter and his wife, will be “the only free couple in the world,” making them — as Dave Kehr has said — the redemption of romance in a filmography of doomed, manipulative relationships. John Cusack and Mary-Louise Parker, the couple that walks away together at the fade of Bullets Over Broadway, are equally free, equally adrift in the petty misunderstandings of the rest of Woody’s movie couples, but for the opposite reason: he’s not an artist, thank god. It’s fascinating that domesticity would be the prevailing theme in a film of Allen’s, especially at a point in his career almost exactly concurrent with that of Hitchcock’s for Harry. The point that love overcomes art (that, indeed, to save a life is more important than to save the last copy of Shakespeare’s plays) is both conservative and powerfully subversive, and it manifests beautifully for the entirety of the film — in simple conversations, in the decisions made by the film’s two budding playwrights, in the change ultimately made by Cusack’s protagonist, and in Palminteri’s willingness to die for work he believes in but for which he won’t even receive credit.

The production values in Bullets, aided by Carlo di Palma’s tremendous sense of depth, are a significant step up from Allen’s status quo — though his wonderful skill at blocking in long takes (playing lengthy, complicated scenes without a cut) and far shots that somehow never come to feel excessively theatrical is still the defining aesthetic of the picture — and as with Zelig, the reason seems to simply be that this is what the screenplay (cowritten with Douglas McGrath, later the director of the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma) requires: a stage for unexpected gunfire and almost impeccable production design capturing a distant time in three dimensions. Most of Allen’s period pieces are black & white, aiding their illusion, but this one steeps us in another world in full color, and the results are as wholly enveloping and believable as Midnight in Paris later would be — perhaps more so, since this film is so much less driven by such trickery as its thesis. The camera’s agility is remarkable, tracking for instance from a dance revue to a table full of people conversing, then following one of its occupants across a room full of extras to another table at the opposite end of the room, then lingering on their discussion for several minutes thereafter all in a single shot. The smart economy in Allen’s direction and Susan Morse’s editing keep the film moving so swiftly that it seems to leave none of its potential ideas unexplored despite its modest running time; the expansiveness and good judgment in the plot and writing are perfectly proportioned in terms of tone, and in terms of what characters we get to know when. Nothing is overly belabored — maybe some would argue that Wiest’s scenes grow repetitive, but that’s about it — and the fusion of side-splitting jokes and ingratiatingly weird characterizations with morbid gangland bloodshed keeps the film grounded in its own absurdity.

Shooting down the idea that Allen was always putting up his bourgeois characters as a standard to strive for in his movies, the beautiful final scene in this movie gives the lie as well to any idea that one is defined by one’s work, as tempting as it may sometimes be to believe that. Bullets Over Broadway is a great, warm, wise film, and like most of Allen’s, it improves on second viewing — the first time it’s simply hilarious, and one marvels at the conviction behind the scope of the production and even the sheer violence, but the second time, like Husbands and Wives, it can sneak up and move you to tears. It’s close to a precise expansion of Allen’s famous quote “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it by not dying.” The result is funny, intense, personal, and sure to prove far more immortal than its author.

[Expanded from two old writeups of mine on this film, from 2005 and 2007.]

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