By Christian DiMartino
Say what you will about Woody Allen (and plenty have, and plenty will), but the man is not only a fine actor, but even more so, an excellent writer and director. Sure, if you’ve seen at least 30 of Allen’s films, it is easy to spot similarities between some and others. Yet the man (until recently) made a movie a year for decades, and it’s clear that even despite recent controversy, he still doesn’t plan on slowing down soon.
Bullets Over Broadway is Allen in top form. That is not to say it is his best film (The Purple Rose of Cairo or Match Point holds that title), but the film is an wonderful display for his gifts; what makes his best works tick. Bullets Over Broadway is filled with terrific performances (and hugely entertaining characters to match them), ingenious plotting, and some of the sharpest writing Allen brought to the screen. It is also, of course, utterly hilarious.
When Allen isn’t in his own films, he usually has a surrogate standing in for him. The surrogate this time is John Cusack’s David Shayne, an up-and-coming 1920s (or maybe 1930s) playwright who is attempting to get his newest work off the ground. He is offered the funding, but it comes with a catch. The one willing to put up the money is a mobster named Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli) and he will help fund the play on the grounds that his girlfriend, Olive (Jennifer Tilly), an aspiring actress, has a significant role in the play. Olive is a real menace- loud, obnoxious, and damn near impossible to work with. She is also a terrible actress. Yet for the sake of funding and being scared of being whacked, she is cast in the play.
The film follows the turbulent production of Shayne’s play, and focuses on the other actors within the play. Dianne Wiest kills here as Helen Sinclair, a glamorous actress who is also something of a has-been, but is too vain to see it. Shayne is of course a huge admirer, and if you are aware of Allen’s interests in storytelling, you can assume what happens between them. There is enough plot in what I have told you to be its own movie, yet Allen takes the story further with a character named Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), who is guarding Olive and watching her during rehearsals, and also, surprisingly, has a hidden natural instinct for writing.
There is a lot happening in Bullets Over Broadway, and yet it never feels overworked. It flows beautifully because Allen has written characters here that are gloriously entertaining. I also liked the look of this film. Allen has a keen eye for these kinds of details, as he displayed in his hugely underrated Radio Days, and he is able to make you feel as if you have traveled back in time. His films can’t be too expensive, but in the hands of production designer Santo Loquasto, a frequent collaborator, it looks grand.
Cusack is good here, and provides a solid stand-in for Allen. The film does however belong to (and perhaps its more of a joint custody) Wiest, Tilly, and Palminteri. Each of them were nominated for Oscars here, with Wiest winning, and it’s very easy to see why. Allen wrote perfect material for them, and indeed, they have delivered upon it, and they deliver upon it in different ways. Wiest is hilarious here as an actress who feels all too believable. Tilly’s character is bound to get on your nerves… and that is the beauty of it, as she chews scenery for her entire runtime. The very idea behind the Palminteri character is funny, and yet he takes it a step further.
Bullets Over Broadway is so sharp in its writing and execution. The direction in which this story is taken is just the kind of idea that perhaps only Allen could conceive, and it’s a work of clever beauty. A plot-point that will have you laughing at the audacity of it, but also the genius of it. Bullets Over Broadway is not Allen’s best, but it is great Allen- among his best- and the work of a man at the peak of his comedic powers.
One Oscar Win: Best Supporting Actress (Wiest)
6 other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Tilly), Best Supporting Actor (Palminteri), Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design