'Hollywood Ending': Not Soon Enough

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 3, 2002

A kiss is just a kiss, unless too much time has gone by. Then it's no longer the same old story. That seems to be the prevailing opinion concerning the lip-lock Woody Allen lays on Tea Leoni in "Hollywood Ending" that has America in such an uproar, if talk radio is any guide.

Oh, the humanity, the humanity. That a fellow so close to dotage could put his crackly, spittle-glistening smackers on the mouth of a tender, beautiful young woman! Is this legal? Isn't it a form of molestation? Is this what all those old guys are thinking, the ones you see walking the streets in their tweed jackets with their bald heads pathetically combed-over, their corduroy pants as baggy as the flesh of their chest, and their necks rather cottage-cheesy?

Hint: Yes.

But the funny thing, or maybe it's the sad thing, is that when the ancient one busses the tender one it's one of the few moments when poor "Hollywood Ending" comes alive. In most other aspects, it seems more like a therapy session than a movie, a discussion between its auteur and his shrink. It's about a seemingly washed-up film director (hmmmm?), angry that his audience has deserted him (hmmmm? again), bitter over the breakup with a treasured partner (hmmmm! thrice), bitter over a shattered relationship with his son (hmmmmm quatro). He responds to this with cosmic hypochondria (hmmmm V!).

That's too many hmmms for a movie review, so we now depart from the medical specialty of psychiatry and return to the film. "Hollywood Ending" is minor Woody Allen from that saddest of all possible worlds: the one where there may be no more major Woody Allen left. It feels old, tired and given-up-on, maybe three drafts shy of minimal production level.

That's not to say it's without a laugh. He is, after all, Woody Allen. No one who ever answered the question "Is sex dirty?" with the answer "Yes, if you do it right" could possibly put together 112 minutes of material without at least some laughs.

So yes, now and then, he still cracks wise and shatters an audience. Or he knits together an effortlessly perfect comedy sequence that rocks the house. "Hollywood Ending" has one such scene, when Allen, playing a psychosomatically blind film director, tries to bluff his way through a meeting with a studio head. It's a masterpiece of near-misses and elegant syncopation as the sightless character (Allen) is always looking in exactly the wrong direction. Of course, the executive (Treat Williams) is too vain to notice.

But everything else about "Hollywood Ending" feels underdeveloped; nothing has been thought out, nothing has been polished or smoothed, the whole thing feels thrown desperately together. He seems to have turned into one of those bitter, liver-spotted old men forever yapping about how much better it used to be and oh-so-eager to share memories at length, just like, oh, you know, say, me.

Allen plays Val Waxman, formerly a great movie director who won two Oscars, now fallen on hard times. He's shooting deodorant commercials above the Arctic Circle but that description is funnier than the dramatization in the movie. His adored wife Ellie (Leoni), a movie executive and his former production partner, has left him for exactly what the two of them once hated: the smug, handsome, soulless Hollywood studio head, too slick, too dumb, too cunning, too – ugh! – "commercial."

A project exists that Ellie, now a Hollywood producer (in her affianced's company) wants to green-light. It's a New Yorky kind of piece, and so she fights for Val as director, because it doesn't get New Yorkier than Val. But when you hear Allen's whiny, Nooyawkee bleat through all three nostrils, it's somehow not funny anymore. It's old. The whine – his weapon of choice all these years – has lost its edge, but not its ability to make the flesh on your neck pucker.

So the movie seems like it's to be the account of a director making a film for his ex-wife, the producer, while secretly wooing her back to him. It is. For a while. Then that idea loses steam and another one takes precedence: He is so stricken with anxiety that he goes blind.

So is the movie about a blind director making a movie and trying to prevent the world from finding out? Yes. It is. For a while. Although this is definitely a one-trick pony, it's a funny one-trick pony. For. A. While. But when he's resorting to falling off a set for laughs you think: How far Woody Allen has fallen.

At the three-quarter mark, we suddenly discover – as if Allen discovered it last night, while dictating pages – that he has an estranged son. This sets up a comic riff on that subspecies hated by all men with varicose veins and blurred vision: the young. This child is uncharitably sketched as possessing all the pathologies of his tribe: green hair, body piercings, tattoos, baggy clothes, spindly arms, big boots, a messy apartment and an actual fondness for music that goes thumpa-thumpa. The movie is about this. Forawhile. (That's over quickly.)

Then it just ends with a Hollywood ending that has been pretty much foreshadowed since the start, and carries no particular punch. Allen once said he wrote a script till about page 30; then if the story was moving, he'd continue. If not, he'd abandon. This one feels like about four 30-page discards, stapled together, and sealed with a kiss.

HOLLYWOOD ENDING (PG-13, 112 minutes)Contains mild sexual innuendo. At area theaters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company