Woody Allen Gums the Hand that Feeds Him
Armond White

Directed by Woody Allen

Being in the rarefied position of industry pet, Woody Allen doesn't dare make the Hollywood satire Hollywood deserves. His new film Hollywood Ending withholds the bile and lividity that made Deconstructing Harry's rip on East Coast pretensions so exhilarating. This extended anecdote about a veteran filmmaker who leaps at the chance to revive his career by piloting a demographically designed studio project gives Allen a film-artist alter-ego, Val Waxman. Allen's own resentment ("Waxman had hit pictures 10 years ago, then he became an artiste," sneers a studio bigshot) is smothered in recycled jokes and half-thought-out plot twists?a gossipy magazine journalist, a rebellious alt-rock son?that never develop into a coherent account of a culture where "All of a sudden everything got stupid." Allen's anger is more real than apparent. The very title Hollywood Ending promises a scathing rebuke of commercial artifice?perhaps even a third-finger flip. Instead, Allen gums the hand that feeds him.

The Val Waxman figure has Allen's familiar hypochondria, egotism and lechery, the idiosyncrasies he's nurtured since he stopped playing the schlemiel. Such are the benefits of success and acclaim?along with the favors of leggy, fetching starlets (this time Tea Leoni plays the smart one, Debra Messing the dumb one). Waxman himself flatters the vanity of studio executives?like those who continue to finance Allen despite his limited box office returns. He courts their indulgence (winning such privileges as hiring non-American cinematographers), but the last few movies Allen has turned out?the anemic Curse of the Jade Scorpion, the petty-minded Small Time Crooks?don't redeem the groveling to which a filmmaker must subject himself. The sorriest sight in Hollywood Ending comes from Allen pimping off his 80s culture-god status. Galaxie studios (Allen's early 80s films were produced at Orion) offers Waxman a New York-set movie titled The City that Never Sleeps because "The streets are in his marrow." Actually there's never been a less gritty New York filmmaker than Allen, but it's as if he believed all those worshipful New York Times articles and thought himself superior to the typical Hollywood hack.

Hollywood Ending's central gimmick occurs when Waxman goes blind just before his new movie starts shooting. This purely psychological condition prompts a visit to his therapist?which comes way late in the story?yet there's no honest self-examination in the film. Not enough self-questioning or rich man's blues (guilt) to justify the movie's barbs at industry practice?practices and extravagances that, by now, are Allen's own. When Waxman panics, "I can't direct the picture! I'm blind!" his agent (Mark Rydell) counters, "Have you seen some of the pictures out there?" It's a double double-whammy when you consider the virtually unwatchable long takes, shaky cam and fussy editing Allen has used (and that comes up during studio discussions on Waxman's style). Hollywood Ending's snipe at film culture arrogance is as oxymoronic as Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back; however, Allen's style has become so stolid and upholstered that this lightweight comedy can't stir up Jay and Silent Bob's slapdash energy.

Allen bets as much as Kevin Smith on people enjoying the disdaining of showbusiness. It's the business everybody loves even if it's not their own. But Hollywood Ending lacks the details of contemporary film culture that might make a modern satire distinctive. Though set in New York, with locations at the Kaufman Astoria studios and the cast of suits (Leoni, Rydell, Treat Williams, George Hamilton) attired in appropriate Hollywood-executive chic, the satire feels moldy, like the showbiz mythology Allen trawled in Bullets over Broadway. None of these caricatures is particularly charming. Allen's misogyny is still free-flowing, and the men are all grovelers and sycophants (although Williams has a few surprising, gentlemanly rueful seconds doubting his fiancee's loyalty).

After Altman's The Player and Lynch's Mulholland Drive, it's hard to appreciate a disingenuous Hollywood spoof. Those artists were sensitive to subterfuge, disloyalty, rejection, dishonesty, greed (and came up with endings that stayed with you). Their pioneering should have freed Allen from the obligation to put oversized shoes, a ruffled collar and a red nose on his distress. Something's wrong when Waxman takes a crack at Peter Bogdanovich for beating him in a has-been's competition?especially since Bogdanovich's new The Cat's Meow aces Allen's Hollywood movie. The Cat's Meow has the sexual pulse, psychological intrigue, emotional power and humor that Allen doesn't grasp. Yes, Allen's always good for a few comic whiplashes. (The multi-culti joke of the year ends with the punchline, "Who ordered?" And when the studio execs approve a nameless director, it's because "He's safe; we can put our foot on his neck.") But the basic trouble with Hollywood Ending is that Allen seeks safe targets. He compounds agent jokes ("I can't listen to you, you have agent ethics!" and "He's an agent, there's no limit to what they'll do") yet winks at Waxman's own loose scruples. In Waxman's reunion with his estranged son (Mark Webber), Allen pulls that old high art vs. pop detestation that was boring even back in Hannah and Her Sisters. (Does Allen seriously think Purple Rose of Cairo is art comparable to The White Sheik? Interiors equal to Cries and Whispers? Sweet and Lowdown as complex as La Strada? Does anyone?)

Perhaps the press must be blamed for Allen's inflated sense of his artistry. (Although his recent appearance at the Academy Awards proves even the HollyWoodman has to play the industry game when his pictures don't click.) Waxman isn't exactly modest when his blind man's opus (a fiasco in the States) finally opens in Europe and his agent reads him rave reviews: "The French call it the greatest American movie in 50 years." Waxman waxes chagrin. "Over here I'm a bum, over there I'm a genius." Given Allen's inordinate acclaim at home and that ancient French prejudice, the joke's too facile to make sense of the real insanity in our film culture?the improper promotion of a Neil LaBute, Mike Figgis, Baz Luhrmann or Hal Hartley. The joke's not funny because Waxman's destiny?industry success and the beautiful, rich wife he pines for?is too close to endorsing the nightmare Altman proposed at the end of The Player.

If the streets are in Allen's marrow, it might take some honest bloodletting to put it on the screen. (That, in fact, is what happened in the 9/11 short he made as part of last fall's America: A Tribute to Heroes broadcast. Allen's trenchant spoof on Manhattan cellphone mania was brisk and sharp. Full of charged-up New York flavor?a carnival of self-centered go-getters?it was good enough to rate being included as a special feature on the Deconstructing Harry DVD.) But it's the height of arrogance for Hollywood Ending to evoke an old-fashioned Hollywood finale when Allen can't sufficiently reconcile his spite and privilege to transcend the cliche.