Bullets Over Broadway

Thespians and Thugs

John Hartl

No longer do we need to refer to Woody Allen's "earlier, funnier movies."

The Woody who made Sleeper and Bananas and Love and Death is back in Bullets Over Broadway, which has more laughs packed into its exquisitely orchestrated 99 minutes than anything he's done in nearly 20 years.

The chief difference is that the young male lead, which Allen would have played two decades ago, is taken by John Cusack. The Diane Keaton part is played by Mary-Louise Parker, whose role this time is essentially supporting.

Whether or not you regard these replacements as pluses or minuses will depend on how fond you are of the Allen-Keaton team and its continuation into middle age. To me they seemed wrong for the ditsy, youthful shenanigans of last year's Manhattan Murder Mystery, and the movie suffered for it. But many were charmed by their reunion and hoped for a sequel.

In any event, Bullets Over Broadway is an ensemble piece in which several actors get an opportunity to shine without necessarily hogging their scenes. Parker has some choice moments, especially when she dryly declares her independence from Cusack, and Cusack brings just the right note of callow, gutless pretension to the role of a 1920s Broadway playwright whose reach far exceeds his grasp.

But three actresses playing actresses of varied professional abilities give the movie its most inspired farcical touches.

Dianne Wiest has the showiest role, as a manipulative, parasitic Broadway "legend" who grudgingly uses Cusack's latest play as a comeback vehicle. Jennifer Tilly is the talent-free actress whose gangster boyfriend is backing the show, and Tracey Ullman is a nervous co-star who prompts Tilly when she forgets her lines - and sneakily congratulates her that the audience seems pleased when she exits a scene.

When these three are clicking, as they rehearse or perform the Cusack character's appalling attempts to write Eugene O'Neill dialogue, Bullets Over Broadway reaches its giddiest heights. Wiest also carries the movie's funniest off-stage episodes, as she cagily seduces Cusack into rewriting the play and expanding her role.

Those who didn't care for Allen's past attempts at drama may detect a note of self-criticism in the Cusack character, whose bloodless writing needs a common-sense infusion by a surprisingly gifted collaborator - a menacing gangster played by Chazz Palminteri. Allen took sole writing credit for his most serious and least commercial films, Interiors, September and Another Woman; this could be an attempt to acknowledge his debts to his co-writers.

Whatever the reason, and however much one wants to read into the movie's brushes with higher meaning, comedy reigns here. The spectacle of people behaving badly is paramount, whether it's Jim Broadbent as an actor who gorges himself when his off-stage philandering leads to death threats, or Rob Reiner as a Greenwich Village philosopher who specializes in defending incomprehensibility, or Palminteri resorting to the final solution to improve what has become "his" play.

"Let's Misbehave," the Cole Porter tune Allen first used in 1972's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, turns up again here. Nothing could more engagingly suggest that he's returned to his roots.