Bullets Over Broadway

Marjorie Baumgarten

If Damon Runyon and Anton Chekhov had ever gotten together to make a movie, the result might have been something like Bullets Over Broadway. In his latest film, Woody Allen has distilled essences of both these writers to create a hybrid that comically froths and pensively stews. Bullets Over Broadway is a period piece set in the Roaring Twenties. (The frequency with which Allen, whose outlook is regarded as distinctly “contemporary,” returns to period stories is interesting; for example, Love and Death, Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days.) Gangsters and playwrights, showgirls and thespians, hit men and artists' agents, all commingle in BOB's backstage world. The deft ensemble work of Allen's entire cast is about as seamless as you're ever likely to see. At its center is David Shayne (Cusack), a Greenwich Village playwright so determined to safeguard his artistic vision that he insists on also directing his new play, Gods of Our Fathers, himself. Despite his commitment to purity, David makes one artistic compromise after another. His Broadway backer, mobster Nick Valenti (Viterelli), only requires a starring role for his vulgar and talentless showgirl girlfriend, Olive Neal (Tilly). Adding insult to injury, Olive is absurdly cast as a psychiatrist. Also onboard are Helen Sinclair (deliciously played by Wiest), a Norma Desmond-ish grande dame whose theatricality extends into her off-stage life as she casts a spell over the smitten David and angles ways of beefing up her character's role; Warner Purcell (Broadbent), a matinee idol whose girth increases steadily as the show develops; and Eden Brent (Ullman), a perky ingenue who's well past her youth. Olive's bodyguard, Cheech (Palminteri), sits in the back of the theatre every day reading the racing form while the others rehearse. But gradually, it becomes evident that he has an intuitive theatrical sense as he suggests dialogue and structural changes that turn David's turgid travesty into exciting stagework. Cheech doesn't mind the anonymity, but he is willing to go to ultimate lengths to make sure that “his” work is not tampered with. Thus, the question becomes one of who is the real artist -- the dull but successful writer who learns to make compromises or the genius who does whatever is necessary to protect his work from harm. David's unpublished playwright pal Sheldon Flender (Reiner) declares that an artist must create his own moral universe, a credo that resounds throughout BOB. If Flender is right, does it also follow that the true artist should have greater freedom than a hack to morally transgress? And what about the utterly talentless? This type of reading has been providing more-than-ample fodder for those who wish to view the movie as Allen's response to the recent scandals that have dominated his public life. If so, it is clear that Allen has more to work through, as Bullets does not theoretically advance these notions much beyond their mere conjecture. More likely, Bullets is an honest attempt at creating farce, albeit one that tweaks the age-old artist's dilemma throughout. As a “statement,” Bullets Over Broadway is a muddle; but as a comedy, it's good for more than a few laughs.

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