Bullets Over Broadway

By Hal Hinson

Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” is the most substantive, accessible -- not to mention the funniest—film that the prolific writer-director has made in years.

Taking the travails of the artist’s life as his subject, Allen goes back to Broadway during the time of bathtub gin and flappers and a budding playwright named David Shayne (John Cusack), who is struggling to get his latest dramatic work up on the boards. To finance the play, Shayne enters into a Faustian bargain with a gangster, Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli), whose participation hinges on a single condition—that his girlfriend, Olive (Jennifer Tilly), a garish chorus-line dancer, play a pivotal role.

Most of “ Bullets Over Broadway” takes place backstage as Shayne and his troupe of actors prepare for their opening, and Allen’s depiction of the labor pains of creativity is as side-splitting and insightful as anything he has ever done. The most hilarious bits emerge out of the clash of diapered egos as these flamboyantly self-centered theater animals turn the stage into their playpen. Allen has always attracted a who’s who of acting talent to his films, but rarely has he managed to pull from his actors the sort of inspired lunacy that he is blessed with here.

Nearly everyone associated with getting the play on its feet is a certified nut. The leading lady, Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), is a famous Broadway diva who refurbishes her creative juices with martinis when she can get them and paint remover when she can’t. Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent), her leading man, never met a buffet he didn’t like, and eventually sinks so low that he starts nabbing the yummies away from the ingenue’s Chihuahua.

Caught in the middle of this insanity, David tries to maintain the integrity that he naively believes is the soul of the artist. Soon, though, Helen massages his vanity—among other things—and seduces him into making her character more appealing. Also, Olive’s bodyguard, Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), begins to recommend radical changes in the play. What’s worse is that his suggestions are too good to be dismissed. As a result, David begins a surreptitious collaboration with Cheech, who, as more and more of his words make it into the script, becomes so protective of his vision that he’s willing to commit murder to guarantee that it remains intact.

Not only is the script—co-written by Douglas McGrath—studded with comic jewels and the cast sublime, but “ Bullets Over Broadway” also sustains the sort of dramatic momentum that is rare in Allen’s films. Thematically, the filmmaker is interested in the tension that exists between a man and his creative self. Allen has often examined the conflicts between domesticity and creativity, usually coming down on the side of the artist, even if he is reprehensible. Here, though, he seems to suggest that the artist, like anybody else, is subject to moral limits.

With its structural tidiness and polished theatrical speech, the film is very much like the well-made plays of the era Allen depicts, and in that sense it is a conservative, even anachronistic work. In this case, though, that is hardly a criticism. That Allen’s sympathies here seem to favor life over art may seem like a concession to conventional morality—a sort of escape hatch. But then again, the playwright here is not a true artist. And Allen could never be accused of that.

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