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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Chips off the old blocks

Hollywood Ending

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Woody Allen
Running time: 113 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"It's his movie, and no one else's." So goes a line in Woody Allen's "Hollywood Ending." This one finds the New York master of comedy in an ecological frame of mind. But rather than try new things or invest in the unknown, he recycles the dear and beloved themes of his own works. It's his movie, all right.

News photo
Woody Allen and Tea Leoni in "Hollywood Ending"

Allen has reached a particular, perhaps peculiar, state where he can make the perfect Woody Allen movie, complete with a rehash/mishmash of his favorite, familiar jokes. On masturbation: "What I love about masturbation is the cuddling time afterward." Digs at Los Angeles: "In New York the guy is middle-normal. In L.A., he's a genius. Things have a different speed here." It's Woody Allen's homage to Woody Allen, and it's something he can do with his eyes closed.

Having said so, "Hollywood Ending" is lite, enjoyable fare compared to say, the more ruminating "Deconstructing Harry," making no demands on the viewer apart from having to sit through scenes of the now 70-year-old Allen passionately smooching actresses decades younger than him. (Then again, we're used to this by now.) Ripples of nostalgia come lapping on the shores of our collective Allen movie memories as he is besieged by creative anxiety on one hand and plagued by relationship problems on the other.

The usual Oedipus trap is not so obvious this time, but that's more than compensated for by a father-son situation (the son of Woody Allen's character, from a previous marriage, has turned into a green-haired, live rat-eating punk musician) and their dialogue details are almost straight out of "Hannah and her Sisters." (See the scene when Allen goes to a punk-rock concert with Diane Wiest.)

Above all, this is a commemorative package filled with Allen-esque treats. Much of the fun comes from spotting the familiar themes and matching them up with Allen's past works: We got hypochondria! ("Hannah and her Sisters"), rhapsodizing about Paris! ("Everybody says I Love You") and then there's rhapsodizing about New York ("Manhattan").

"Hollywood Ending" begins with the scene of a meeting of Hollywood studio execs (ah-ha! "Stardust Memories") debating on the pros and cons of hiring veteran N.Y. director Val Waxman (Allen) to do a new movie. Most of them are against bringing in the neurotic, temperamental Val, but Ellie (Tea Leoni), who happens to be his ex-wife, pushes his name and convinces her current fiance, a producer named Hal (Treat Williams), to greenlight the project.

Val has two Academy Awards to his name, but is now desperate for work, and he's almost ready to forget the fact that Ellie had cheated on him with Hal and gone off to L.A., to live in a big house with a swimming pool. ("How could she live that kind of life?") When the two get together over drinks to discuss the project, Val has a mild schizophrenic breakdown and unleashes his venom in between requests for certain production designers and a foreign cameraman ("For two months you were seeing him behind my back! . . . American cameramen can't produce that kind of texture," etc.)

And then, two days before shooting, Val suddenly loses his vision, completely. Rather than lose the job, Val decides to do this one blind. The doctors tell him it's psychosomatic and his shrink informs him that he must sort out his relationships with his ex-wives and estranged son before he regains his sight.

In the meantime, Val stumbles around on set bumping into furniture and relying on the frantic whispered directions from his agent Al (Mark Rydell) to get him through. Miraculously, no one suspects the director is actually blind -- his eccentricities are accepted as part of his N.Y.-bred aesthetic sensibilities. The leading actress even thinks he's making a pass at her, and too happy to oblige, he invites him to her dressing room.

The not-so-overt Oedipus complex turns out to be the most interesting thing going on here. Ellie, who talks and dresses a lot like Annie Hall minus the scatter-brained "la-di-da" bit, mothers and nurtures Val through his ordeal, even as an overly inquisitive reporter asks her: "When you were married to him, did you feel like the young, beautiful trophy wife?" It's obvious their relationships was never like that, despite the age gap. "You used to be so maternal toward me," Val reminds her. "That's because you were so infantile," she answers with a little irritation (and indulgence).

Ellie's straight-talking, dependable and thoroughly charming: Annie on her best behavior! Forming a nice (if predictable) contrast is Val's ditzy girlfriend, Lori (Debra Messing), an off-Broadway actress whose main worries are what to wear and how to lose weight. "She's like a step above trailer park" is how Ellie describes her, and Val's neurotic excuse for dating her is: "You know how I hate to sleep alone."

"Hollywood Ending" is clearly a warm-up for his next, more complex comedy, "Melinda and Melinda" (scheduled to open in Japan in June). Watching it, we're reminded of what Goethe said about aging: "It's difficult to grow and mature with age, and even more difficult to remain in the same place." It would seem that Woody Allen can pull off both.

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