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Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway is a parable about compromise whose moral is that real artists don’t. The director’s conviction that artists are different from ordinary people has long been one of his less appealing qualities. What’s pleasantly surprising about Broadway is its very nearly irreverent treatment of this theme.
Set in the requisitely roaring ’20s —a worth-the-price-of-admission opening scene recreates Prohibition-era Times Square—the film begins as ingenuous young playwright David Shayne (John Cusack) grapples with a moral dilemma. A mobster will provide the financial backing for David’s play on the condition that his talentless girlfriend is given a key role. The temptation to have his work mounted on Broadway proves irresistible to David—especially after a few drinking sessions with his Greenwich Village clique, would-be artists and café pontificators all, who comfort him with comments like “maybe it’ll be produced posthumously.” The gangster’s girl, Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly), proves as obnoxious as she is incompetent, but David persuades himself that the legitimate actors who’ve signed on to the project—self-important stage legend Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), flighty character actress Eden Brent (Tracey Ullman), and ever-more-portly leading man Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent)—will somehow cancel her out.
Once he’s pledged himself to the initial deal, David’s embattled artistic principles lose ground fast. Infatuated by Helen—the falsity of the aging actress’s catalog of exaggerated mannerisms having evidently escaped his notice—the playwright gladly changes his work to increase the size of her role. Meanwhile, lest David attempt to decrease the size of Olive’s role, her benefactor sends an armed tough, Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), to the play’s rehearsals. When the taciturn hit man volunteers a suggestion for altering the plot, David is offended by the cast’s enthusiastic response. It’s not long, however, before he begins to seek Cheech’s input on the sly. With Cheech supplying the artistic vision, a new, better version of the play takes shape (and David is forced to acknowledge that the only vision he’s got is a selfish one of himself as a Broadway success).
But, of course, the important thing about Broadway is that it’s funny—and not just because it includes Rob Reiner in his underwear. The film’s characters are all familiar types, but the quality of the actors is such that it doesn’t much matter. It’s as if Allen’s casting clout is so great that he barely bothers fleshing out his roles. All we really know about Broadbent’s Warner, for instance, is that he’s a furtive snacker; all we really know about Ullman’s Eden is that she dotes on a repulsive chihuahua. But in capable hands, that’s enough. Cusack even manages to avoid mimicry in the film’s “Woody Allen role” (give Allen extra credit for bowing out as his own male lead). In a typically understated scene, the tormented playwright wakes in a sweat and throws open his apartment window, yelling, “I am a whore!” into the darkness.
As Allen’s ’80s-era Bergman knockoffs attest, the director has always ascribed to a misbegotten notion of what constitutes “serious” art. But aside from its veneration of the artistic temperament, the eminently likable Broadway, which was co-scripted by erstwhile Saturday Night Live writer and sometime New Republic columnist Douglas McGrath, is notable for its lack of such ponderousness. Indeed, the film seems to make a conscious effort to deflate the pompous claims that people typically make for themselves as artists: One of David’s friends, for example, professes that “the artist creates his own moral universe.” Later, it turns out he used this lofty maxim to rationalize sleeping with David’s girlfriend. Broadway doesn’t go so far as to declare artists mere mortals—the film’s one true artist is still substantively different from other people, but not, as it rather significantly turns out, in a particularly desirable way.
Any film project set in motion by Sleepless in Seattle was in trouble from the outset. That film’s references to the 1957 weeper An Affair to Remember caused a run on the mawkish B-list classic at video stores. Remember was itself a retitled musical remake of 1939’s Love Affair, making director Glenn Gordon Caron’s update the third time this melodramatic tale has been committed to film.
This time around, the story has been disagreeably tailored to mirror producer/co-writer/leading man Warren Beatty’s personal life: Its hero is a celebrity, Mike Gambril (Beatty), who decides to settle down with a nice girl, Terry McKay (Annette Bening), after an adulthood spent womanizing. Mike has recently become engaged to a fellow celebrity, but clips from Entertainment Tonight lunkishly set the stage (“He has a reputation for playing the field,” notes Mary Hart) for the improbable shipboard courtship—with a stranger, also engaged—that follows.
From its pink titles to its kissing montage, Love Affair is a dismally self-conscious effort to craft an old-style movie romance. (Director Caron created and produced Moonlighting, so attempts to update ’30s-style romantic comedy presumably come naturally.) With the exception of the decision to remake this movie at all, the casting of Katherine Hepburn as Mike’s aunt, a sort of Yoda figure who dispenses sage advice on life and love, is the film’s most obvious attempt to conjure the spirit of a bygone era. After all, even Terry’s clothes—wide-leg white jumpsuits and the like—look like they came out of Kate’s Philadelphia Story wardrobe closet.
Like the embarrassing post-matrimonial Madonna/Sean Penn vehicle Shanghai Express, Love Affair is a sort of wedding announcement on celluloid. Less an actual film than a colossal act of egotism, it’s based on the supposition that the moviegoing public wants to see Beatty and his wife cavort through an exotic island setting in expensive leisure clothes. Yet even that might have been tolerable, had Beatty had enough self-awareness to cast an attractive man as the male lead rather than taking the role himself.