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Sitting through Woody Allen’s recent movies is rather like paying an obligatory visit to a doddering uncle in an assisted-living center. You try hard not to focus on your once-beloved relative’s mental and physical decline, and do your best to feign amusement at his moth-eaten jokes. Then, having dispatched your familial duty, you depart feeling depressed, struggling to retain the memory of how delightful he was in his glory days.

After the ignominious flop of his last effort, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, writer-director Allen gamely casts himself as washed-up filmmaker Val Waxman in Hollywood Ending. A two-time Oscar winner, Val has become increasingly pretentious and difficult to work with, helming a string of arty movies that nobody wants to see. Now reduced to making television commercials, he gets an unexpected opportunity to jump-start his long-stalled career. Ex-wife Ellie (Tea Leoni), who dumped him for studio boss Hal (Treat Williams), goes to bat for him, arguing that he’s the ideal choice to direct an upcoming $65 million feature set in Manhattan.

Despite Hal’s skepticism, Val gets the job and assembles his crew and cast, offering a role to his modestly talented girlfriend, Lori (Debra Messing). But just as shooting is about to begin, Val succumbs to psychosomatic blindness. To avoid being dismissed from the project, he enlists the aid of his loyal agent, Al (Mark Rydell), and his Chinese cinematographer’s interpreter (Barney Cheng) to help conceal his infirmity from his colleagues, as well as a venomous reporter (Jodie Markell) covering the shoot for Esquire.

Hollywood Ending begins with a studio production conference reminiscent of the opening sequence of Preston Sturges’ classic 1941 Hollywood satire, Sullivan’s Travels. Writer-director Sturges’ scene is brilliantly conceived, outfitting the film’s eccentric characters with hilarious, lightning-paced dialogue. By contrast, Allen’s production meeting—shot in an extended single take—plods along like an amateur play, burdening the performers with chunks of clunky, unactable exposition. The pace accelerates with the introduction of Val and Lori squabbling in their Manhattan apartment, but the writing remains uninspired. In what amounts to a self-parody, Allen stammers and flails his arms while delivering one-liners on topics that he long ago exhausted—hypochondria, masturbation, psychoanalysis, death.

The early, livelier reels of Hollywood Ending find Val wavering between attempting to cooperate with the benevolent Ellie and vengefully attacking her for abandoning him. The movie collapses in its second half, an hour of increasingly tiresome and frequently tasteless jokes about blindness. (Val’s supporters praise his artistic “vision” and his ability to direct “with his eyes closed.”) Although the production turns out as badly as one would expect, he’s nevertheless rewarded with an implausible, unearned “Hollywood ending.”

Unlike Val, Allen appears to have no trouble obtaining backing for his projects. He continues to crank out a picture each year, as well as act in films by other directors. But artistically and commercially, his career has steadily declined from the days of Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Stardust Memories. His youthful persona—the nerdy guy whose quick wits compensated for a shortfall of looks and brawn—was endearing, but in his mid-60s, he’s an embittered scold, berating a world that refuses to conform to his desires. At this point, Allen barely bothers to think through the roles he plays. In Val’s blind scenes, he never faces the characters who address him, apparently unaware that sightless people are more sensitive than others to the sources of sounds.

Now balding and slightly stooped, Allen has become an increasingly unlikely romantic partner for the fetching young actresses he casts opposite himself. But at least Leoni and Messing provide a welcome relief from his kvetching. Although, like her cohorts, Leoni stumbles through the opening scene, she quickly recovers, investing Ellie with the strength and grace to withstand Val’s carping. Messing brings enough sweetness to Lori to offset the misogyny of her bimbo role. As Al, Rydell is toothily appealing, but George Hamilton, playing a studio yes-man, and Williams are given nothing to work with, apparently to ensure that the spotlight remains fixed on Allen.

Early in the film, Val receives word that a made-for-television movie he hoped to direct has gone to Peter Bogdanovich. One can’t help suspecting that this is one of Allen’s crueler japes: While Allen continued to work, Bogdanovich’s career nearly crashed and burned within five years. After three early-’70s hits—The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, and Paper Moon—he bottomed out with Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love, a brace of disasters starring his smirking then-paramour, Cybill Shepherd. Since then, success has eluded him, with several of his efforts, including They All Laughed, Illegally Yours, and The Thing Called Love, receiving minimal distribution before being sold to cable television. Like Allen’s Val, he went nearly a decade without directing a theatrical feature.

The Cat’s Meow is unlikely to resurrect Bogdanovich’s career, but it’s more ambitious and interesting than Hollywood Ending. Adapted from a play by Steven Peros, the film examines a legendary Tinseltown scandal: the still-unsolved 1924 murder of pioneer producer Thomas Ince during a party aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht. In addition to Ince (Cary Elwes) and Hearst (Edward Herrmann), the guest list includes Hearst’s devoted, high-spirited mistress, actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst); Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard); novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley); and gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly).

A black-and-white prologue narrated by Glyn informs us that we’re about to witness the “most-rumored” version of the Ince killing. In the brightly hued ensemble piece that follows, Iago-like Ince, down on his luck, connives to secure Hearst’s financial support by providing him with evidence of his young mistress’s dalliance with Chaplin. This scheme sets in motion the events that lead to Ince’s demise.

Almost entirely set aboard Hearst’s luxurious vessel, The Cat’s Meow is predictably claustrophobic, boxed in by the screenplay’s theatrical origins. But the film’s strengths and weaknesses stem mostly from the contributions of its cast. Herrmann gives a remarkable performance as Hearst, a richly textured portrait of a powerful man terrified at the prospect of losing his most prized possession. Although nearly a decade too young to convincingly portray that possession, Dunst nevertheless demonstrates why she is widely regarded as one of the most gifted emerging screen actresses. Throaty Lumley, Absolutely Fabulous’ deliciously dissipated Patsy Stone, makes Glyn so intriguing that you wish she’d been given more to do. But Izzard’s pallid Chaplin falls far short of Robert Downey Jr.’s precise impersonation of the silent comic, Elwes’ Ince is disappointingly bland, and Tilly’s shrill, crudely drawn Parsons shatters the restrained tone set by her colleagues.

Before directing his first feature, Bogdanovich distinguished himself as a film historian, publishing monographs on Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, and interviewing filmmakers and performers for Esquire and other magazines. His love of Hollywood lore is evident throughout The Cat’s Meow. Insider touches include Dunst’s replication of Davies’ intermittent stammer and Chaplin’s disappointment over the commercial failure of his sophisticated drama, A Woman of Paris. In one scene, a jealous Hearst destroys the contents of Davies’ cabin—an homage to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, in which the title character, a thinly disguised Hearst, furiously dismantles his mistress’s bedroom.

Although too languorously paced, excessively arcane for most audiences, and capped by a hollowly moralistic ending, The Cat’s Meow is Bogdanovich’s strongest effort in nearly three decades. It’s heartening to find him, at last, coming out of his long tailspin with a movie worthy of his talent. CP