Woody Allen Gums the Hand that Feeds Him

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

by Woody Allen

Being in
the rarefied position of industry pet, Woody Allen doesn’t dare make the
Hollywood satire Hollywood deserves. His new film Hollywood Ending withholds
the bile and lividity that made Deconstructing Harry’s rip
on East Coast pretensions so exhilarating. This extended anecdote about a veteran
filmmaker who leaps at the chance to revive his career by piloting a demographically
designed studio project gives Allen a film-artist alter-ego, Val Waxman. Allen’s
own resentment ("Waxman had hit pictures 10 years ago, then he became an
artiste," sneers a studio bigshot) is smothered in recycled jokes and half-thought-out
plot twists–a gossipy magazine journalist, a rebellious alt-rock son–that
never develop into a coherent account of a culture where "All of a sudden
everything got stupid." Allen’s anger is more real than apparent.
The very title Hollywood Ending promises a scathing rebuke of commercial
artifice–perhaps even a third-finger flip. Instead, Allen gums the hand
that feeds him.

The Val
Waxman figure has Allen’s familiar hypochondria, egotism and lechery, the
idiosyncrasies he’s nurtured since he stopped playing the schlemiel. Such
are the benefits of success and acclaim–along with the favors of leggy,
fetching starlets (this time Tea Leoni plays the smart one, Debra Messing the
dumb one). Waxman himself flatters the vanity of studio executives–like
those who continue to finance Allen despite his limited box office returns.
He courts their indulgence (winning such privileges as hiring non-American cinematographers),
but the last few movies Allen has turned out–the anemic Curse of the
Jade Scorpion
, the petty-minded Small Time Crooks–don’t
redeem the groveling to which a filmmaker must subject himself. The sorriest
sight in Hollywood Ending comes from Allen pimping off his 80s culture-god
status. Galaxie studios (Allen’s early 80s films were produced at Orion)
offers Waxman a New York-set movie titled The City that Never Sleeps
because "The streets are in his marrow." Actually there’s never
been a less gritty New York filmmaker than Allen, but it’s as if he believed
all those worshipful New York Times articles and thought himself superior
to the typical Hollywood hack.

’s central gimmick occurs when Waxman goes blind just before
his new movie starts shooting. This purely psychological condition prompts a
visit to his therapist–which comes way late in the story–yet there’s
no honest self-examination in the film. Not enough self-questioning or rich
man’s blues (guilt) to justify the movie’s barbs at industry practice–practices
and extravagances that, by now, are Allen’s own. When Waxman panics, "I
can’t direct the picture! I’m blind!" his agent (Mark Rydell)
counters, "Have you seen some of the pictures out there?" It’s
a double double-whammy when you consider the virtually unwatchable long takes,
shaky cam and fussy editing Allen has used (and that comes up during studio
discussions on Waxman’s style). Hollywood Ending’s snipe
at film culture arrogance is as oxymoronic as Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back;
however, Allen’s style has become so stolid and upholstered that this lightweight
comedy can’t stir up Jay and Silent Bob’s slapdash energy.

Allen bets
as much as Kevin Smith on people enjoying the disdaining of showbusiness. It’s
the business everybody loves even if it’s not their own. But Hollywood
lacks the details of contemporary film culture that might make a
modern satire distinctive. Though set in New York, with locations at the Kaufman
Astoria studios and the cast of suits (Leoni, Rydell, Treat Williams, George
Hamilton) attired in appropriate Hollywood-executive chic, the satire feels
moldy, like the showbiz mythology Allen trawled in Bullets over Broadway.
None of these caricatures is particularly charming. Allen’s misogyny is
still free-flowing, and the men are all grovelers and sycophants (although Williams
has a few surprising, gentlemanly rueful seconds doubting his fiancee’s

After Altman’s
The Player and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, it’s hard to
appreciate a disingenuous Hollywood spoof. Those artists were sensitive to subterfuge,
disloyalty, rejection, dishonesty, greed (and came up with endings that stayed
with you). Their pioneering should have freed Allen from the obligation to put
oversized shoes, a ruffled collar and a red nose on his distress. Something’s
wrong when Waxman takes a crack at Peter Bogdanovich for beating him in a has-been’s
competition–especially since Bogdanovich’s new The Cat’s Meow
aces Allen’s Hollywood movie. The Cat’s Meow has the sexual
pulse, psychological intrigue, emotional power and humor that Allen doesn’t
grasp. Yes, Allen’s always good for a few comic whiplashes. (The multi-culti
joke of the year ends with the punchline, "Who ordered?" And when
the studio execs approve a nameless director, it’s because "He’s
safe; we can put our foot on his neck.") But the basic trouble with Hollywood
is that Allen seeks safe targets. He compounds agent jokes ("I
can’t listen to you, you have agent ethics!" and "He’s an
agent, there’s no limit to what they’ll do") yet winks at Waxman’s
own loose scruples. In Waxman’s reunion with his estranged son (Mark Webber),
Allen pulls that old high art vs. pop detestation that was boring even back
in Hannah and Her Sisters. (Does Allen seriously think Purple Rose
of Cairo
is art comparable to The White Sheik? Interiors equal
to Cries and Whispers? Sweet and Lowdown as complex as La Strada?
Does anyone?)

the press must be blamed for Allen’s inflated sense of his artistry. (Although
his recent appearance at the Academy Awards proves even the HollyWoodman has
to play the industry game when his pictures don’t click.) Waxman isn’t
exactly modest when his blind man’s opus (a fiasco in the States) finally
opens in Europe and his agent reads him rave reviews: "The French call
it the greatest American movie in 50 years." Waxman waxes chagrin. "Over
here I’m a bum, over there I’m a genius." Given Allen’s
inordinate acclaim at home and that ancient French prejudice, the joke’s
too facile to make sense of the real insanity in our film culture–the improper
promotion of a Neil LaBute, Mike Figgis, Baz Luhrmann or Hal Hartley. The joke’s
not funny because Waxman’s destiny–industry success and the beautiful,
rich wife he pines for–is too close to endorsing the nightmare Altman proposed
at the end of The Player.

If the streets
are in Allen’s marrow, it might take some honest bloodletting to put it
on the screen. (That, in fact, is what happened in the 9/11 short he made as
part of last fall’s America: A Tribute to Heroes broadcast. Allen’s
trenchant spoof on Manhattan cellphone mania was brisk and sharp. Full of charged-up
New York flavor–a carnival of self-centered go-getters–it was good
enough to rate being included as a special feature on the Deconstructing
DVD.) But it’s the height of arrogance for Hollywood Ending
to evoke an old-fashioned Hollywood finale when Allen can’t sufficiently
reconcile his spite and privilege to transcend the cliche.