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‘Bullets Over Broadway’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 28, 1994

 


Director:
Woody Allen
Cast:
John Cusack;
Chazz Palminteri;
Dianne Wiest;
Jim Broadbent;
Jennifer Tilly
R
Under 17 restricted
Oscars:
Supporting Actress


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After the successful “Husbands and Wives” and “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” Woody Allen has decided to roll up his sleeves and stay funny. “ Bullets Over Broadway, “ a breezy, workmanlike comedy set during the Roaring Twenties, buzzes with classic one-liners, bright performances and off-the-cuff contemplations about love, art and death. It feels like Woody’s good old days.

True to Allen style, “Bullets” has the usual small crowd of celebrities. But this time, the performers blend like a cast, instead of looking like a guest list. Everyone delivers, including central character John Cusack, a self-absorbed Greenwich Village playwright resolutely unaware of his mediocrity;

Dianne Wiest, a larger-than-life Broadway actress starring in his new drama; and Chazz Palminteri, a menacing goon who turns this backstage caper inside out.

When Cusack gets an opportunity to have his latest play produced, the news is good and bad. On the positive side, Cusack will direct the play, formidable stage lady Wiest will play the lead and well-established thespians Jim Broadbent and Tracey Ullman have agreed to join the cast. But to Cusack’s horror, his agent (Jack Warden) has cut a deal with bankroller Joe Viterelli, an unabashed gangster who insists on a part for his moll (Jennifer Tilly).

After the briefest of ethical ditherings (“I’M A WHORE!!!” yells Cusack out of his bedroom window), Cusack begins an endless series of compromises. He accepts Tilly, a Judy Holliday-like starlet with a screech of a voice, who’s accompanied to each rehearsal by sullen bodyguard Palminteri. He agrees to pump up Wiest’s part at the grand dame’s conniving behest. (“I don’t see why she has to be frigid,” he says, reconceiving Wiest’s character.) And now infatuated with Wiest, Cusack allows his relationship with girlfriend Mary-Louise Parker to slip.

When, in rehearsal, it becomes clear that the play isn’t well written, Cusack becomes increasingly responsive to Palminteri, whose bored suggestions make perfect sense. It isn’t long before Cusack is sneaking regularly to Palminteri’s favorite pool hall for further advice. The play gets better, the gangster’s interest in dramaturgy burgeons and the story advances into the realms of black comedy.

The scenario, written by Allen and Douglas McGrath, progresses at an efficient, entertaining clip, its characters (including perky, dog-toting Ullman and amusingly food-binging Broadbent) brimming over with savory utterances. When Cusack meets gangster Viterelli, he learns immediately what kind of moneyman he’s dealing with. Excusing himself to talk on the phone, Viterelli screams into the receiver, “I want it to look like arson!”

Wiest—whose character’s drinking is more legendary than her career— declares, “I haven’t had a drink since New Year’s.”

“You’re talking Chinese New Year’s?” inquires her agent.

It is Wiest, however, who commands the movie—and most of the good lines— as she parades across the screen, cigarette holder firmly in mouth. Sliding into the seat opposite Cusack at a speak-easy, she orders two martinis, very dry.

“How did you know I like martinis?” says Cusack, admiringly.

“Oh,” retorts Wiest with impatience. “You want one too?” She looks up at the server and orders three.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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