Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Picked Flick #64: Bullets Over Broadway

"I'm an artist!" John Cusack bellows in the first line of Bullets Over Broadway, the last Woody Allen movie that needn't be embarrassed of such an opening. What is truly, wonderfully disarming about the movie is that Cusack's David Shayne, for all of his obviously Woody-ish mannerisms, doesn't sap the air out of the movie like most of Allen's recent alter egos have, especially when Allen has played them himself. Sure, it's probably a flaw that the scenes in which David bellyaches to his girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker), agent (Jack Warner), and best friend (Rob Reiner) about the proper role of the artist make so little impression. Still, the formulaic punchlines and underserved characters don't weigh against the movie because Allen, for the first time since The Purple Rose of Cairo, aspires as much to entertain his audience as to sell his ambitions or gnaw away at his philosophical obsessions. Don't get me wrong: I don't necessarily favor Woody's comedies over his dramas, as higher entries on this list will verify. But Allen's humor can be so vivid and his direction so encouraging to comic actors that it seems a shame he has become so parsimonious with those gifts. That co-scripter Douglas McGrath's own subsequent movies felt so weightless, in absolute contrast to Allen's crushing self-consciousness in Deconstructing Harry and Match Point, implies that their partnership on this screenplay was an especially inspired and well-timed stroke of luck. The movie also has a reasonably credible beginning, middle, and end, even if the plot grows overly obedient to rather inane moral arguments. Finally, I think it's Allen's best-looking movie since Manhattan, achieving the kind of playful zest in its Damon Runyon interiors and pop-colored palette that his other Depression-set movies have often nodded toward but never fully attained. Jeffrey Kurland's costumes are especially marvelous, as giddy and plush with outrageous comic abandon as are the movie's dialogue and its performances.

But let's not bury the lead: Bullets Over Broadway lives, sparkles, even jubilates because of its dialogue and its performances. Why does it feel a little embarrassing to say so? Perhaps mainstream film criticism places such exclusive emphasis on words, story, acting, and character that it feels almost regressive to praise a movie so roundly in those terms. But there it is, and happily so. The narrative conceit of David Shayne's turgidly sub-O'Neill script, God of Our Fathers, is brilliantly borne out by such believably lumpen lines as "The days blend together like melted celluloid, like a film whose images become distorted and meaningless"—a line, in fact, that wouldn't feel at all out of place amid the strenuous solipsisms of Interiors (though, at least in that film's case, I take the solipsisms to be purposeful). As the plot requires, not just Shayne's writing but his way of speaking is utterly shown up by the perfect, vulgar concision of Chazz Palminteri's Cheech, who screams of David's play, "It stinks on fuckin' hot ice!" Dianne Wiest's Oscar-winning turn as the boozy, stentorian Helen Sinclair remains the movie's most famous calling-card. Like the movie itself, Wiest's broad overplaying yields so many dozens of delightful moments that you don't care how often the seams show in what she's doing, how Helen is so obviously more of a joke machine than a character. Even the justly celebrated running gag around the line "Don't speak!" is regularly excelled by Wiest's camp modulations and leopard growls at other moments, snaring David's ego through well-calculated praise in a bar, parading him around the roof of her Manhattan apartment, huffing out her love for the dark, empty theater where they rehearse with a perfectly pronounced, Hepburnian "Look! would you look!" When David enters her apartment and praises her exquisite taste, her purring retort—"My taste is superb, my eyes are exquisite!"—is almost literally killer. Indeed, her floridly self-conscious style of seduction, previously unknown outside of those species of insects that eat their young, is a gift that keeps giving, full of glorious, histrionic silences in which Helen mentally assembles her next audition for the Baby Jane-ish role of herself.

But you know, as I've belly-laughed my way through sixth and seventh and eighth viewings of the movie, the frizzed, helium-filled performance of Jennifer Tilly has come to rival Wiest's, revealing real creative ingenuity; look how many of her best scenes are delivered with her back to the camera, as when she lobbies in vain with David to protect the one speech she has managed to memorize ("But I like to say it..."), or when, also on-stage, her fabulously flubbed exclamation "The heart is labynthinine!" is somehow made even more uproarious by the perfect timing and ostrichy posture of her walk. But wait! The single funniest bit of physical acting in the movie isn't Wiest's or Tilly's but Tracey Ullman's. Just watch as Eden Brent, Ullman's own accelerated riff on actressy eccentricity, becomes the first among David's cast to publicly endorse one of Cheech's dramaturgical tips. It's a one-second tour-de-force in a film that just brims with instants like this. You can watch Bullets Over Broadway with the sound off and have a thrilling time. You can listen to it from the next room and achieve total bliss. The fullness and variety of its pleasures still don't amount to Allen's best movie, not even one of his best five (and bully for him for setting such a high bar), but of all of his pictures, I do think Bullets is his most easily, frothily, and durably enjoyable. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Blogger tim r said...

I second all this. BoB is just fantastic fun, however contrived the payoff. It's got pizzazz. I love that you make mention of that Ullman moment - she kind of throws her hands up in a giggly don't-shoot-the-messenger way, right? You've also gotta love Jim Broadbent scoffing all of his cakes and his scenes with Tilly. And the timing of Cusack's line reading at the Mafioso's mansion when he says "I'm just gonna... go now, and get the help that I need..." We let Woody off his Big Idea about art and authorship because it's just such a great excuse for an ensemble mash-up. Love it.

7:47 AM, January 25, 2006  

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