Bullets Over Broadway

A Gangster Steals The Show

Woody Allen's Bullets over Broadway, about a hoodlum turned playwright, is deft and funny and defines genius too

By Richard Schickel

"An artist creates his own moral universe." The desire to remind David (John Cusack) of such a burden is irresistible - he's so young, so serious, so ambitious, so innocent. The trouble is that the universe he actually inhabits is the Broadway of the 1920s, where, as in all show-biz societies, morality is entirely ego driven and provisional.

Director-screenwriter Woody Allen and co-writer Douglas McGrath have comically and affectionately reimagined the archetypes of backstage dramas from the days when the New York theater was a robust and glamorous institution. They're all here, doing their best to bring David's neo-O'Neillian work to life: the wise, temporizing, desperately undercapitalized producer (Jack Warden); the aging ingenue (Tracey Ullman), complete with ill-tempered lapdog; the agreeably self-destructive leading man (Jim Broadbent); above all, the Great Lady of the Theater ("I don't play frumps or virgins"), portrayed by Dianne Wiest in a boldly swooping performance.

The wild card at their rehearsal table is Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly), chorine, ineptly aspiring thespian and gangster's moll. Nick, her mobster lover (Joe Viterelli), is backing the show, in which, nasal accent and all, she is supposed to play a psychiatrist. Nick supplies Olive with a bodyguard. Try to cut one of her lines and you have a hood named Cheech (playwright-actor Chazz Palminteri) to deal with.

Nobody has to advise Cheech to create his own moral universe. His instinct for truth and falsehood has been honed by his profession, and his hot-wired street smarts make him far more acute on the subject of human behavior than any playwright. Slumped in a back row of the theater, keeping an eye on Olive, he is bored and offended by the pretentious twaddle emanating from the stage. Beginning with a few suggestions for line changes, Cheech is soon proposing structural alterations, then secretly joining David in a pool hall to rewrite the play. Among the young playwright's problems is that he lacks any real talent, but Cheech is good - maybe great - and he is quite literally (and hilariously) willing to kill to protect his vision.

Is there a deft little lesson here in how to distinguish raw genius from cautiously tutored craft? You bet there is. But Allen and McGrath also recognize how rude, disturbing and inconvenient greatness can be. And they grant gracious absolution to pretentious mediocrity, once it learns its place. Allen bathes his fable in a seductive, rosy light, grants everyone in the wonderful ensemble cast a comic high point, and gives us a film that combines impeccable craftsmanship and a basic exuberance that's been missing from his work for years.

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