Blind on blind
Ever since I saw Woody Allen’s new movie, Hollywood Ending, I’ve been musing on the quirks of casting. Hollywood Ending pairs Allen with Téa Leoni as a neurotic movie director and his ex-wife. In Allen’s last movie, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, the writer/director/star teamed himself with Helen Hunt. What had me musing is the fact that in Curse of the Jade Scorpion I was uncomfortably aware of the age difference between Allen (66) and Hunt (37), while in Hollywood Ending I hardly gave it a thought, even though Leoni is three years younger than Hunt.
Don’t misunderstand. I still think too many movies match 50-, 60-, or 70-something men with 30-something women. I guess I’m making an exception for Hollywood Ending because the rapport between Woody Allen and Téa Leoni is so sly and impish—their scenes together snap, crackle and pop—and because the movie itself is just so very funny.
The laughs are a saving grace, because Allen’s script doesn’t deliver on everything it promises. He plays Val Waxman, a once-great movie director fallen on hard times and badly in need of a comeback; we first meet him on location, filming a deodorant commercial in the teeth of a Canadian blizzard. We first meet his ex-wife Ellie (Leoni) in a story conference at the studio run by her new boyfriend Hal (Treat Williams). Ellie is producing a film of her own, a film noir called The City That Never Sleeps. The first words out of Ellie’s mouth—the first words we hear in the film—are a reluctant admission that, much as she hates to say it, the perfect director for the project is her ex-husband. Someone protests: “He’s a raving, incompetent psychopath!” Ellie snaps back: “He’s not incompetent!”
Hal, somewhat against his own better judgment, agrees to take a meeting with Val. The meeting does little to ease Hal’s misgivings, but at least Val manages not to inflame those misgivings. Hal green-lights the film, but everyone knows that he’s a hands-on type who will fire any director on the slightest provocation. The fact that this director is his girlfriend’s ex-husband probably gives Val a strike or two already against him.
Maybe that’s why Val goes blind. He calls his agent Al (Mark Rydell) away from a Passover Seder when it turns out that the anxiety of all he has riding on this film (plus, no doubt, the proximity of Ellie and her impending marriage to Hal) has caused him to go psychosomatically blind. He can’t let word get out or his career will really be over. On the other hand … “I can’t direct a movie, I’m blind!” “Have you seen some of the pictures out there?” says Al.
At this point Hollywood Ending becomes a one-joke movie. The joke isn’t simply that Val has to wing it on the set, relying on his Chinese cinematographer’s translator to be his eyes. That stuff is clever enough, but a bit pallid. The real joke, the juicy part, is that everyone on the set is so self-absorbed they don’t even notice—not when Val stares off into space or blunders into them during conversations, not when he seemingly ignores his panty-clad leading lady’s sexual come-on, not even when he takes a header off a second-story platform. Even the appalling state of the footage in the can raises no eyebrows (the cinematographer complains loudly, but he can’t speak English and no one hears him). Everyone assures one another that Val “has a vision” for the film—the constant references to Val’s “vision” become an ironic pun.
There are plot threads that Allen, frustratingly, leaves dangling: the libidinous leading lady (Tiffani Thiessen), a nosy reporter on the set (Stephanie Roth-Haberle). Most promising is Debra Messing as Val’s sweetly dimwitted girlfriend Lori. The fact that Allen flirts with these characters but doesn’t develop them keeps Hollywood Ending from ranking among his best, despite the many laugh-out-loud lines in the script. On the other hand, it could be that Allen gravitated naturally toward Ellie’s character because Leoni is the best leading lady he’s had in years. Remember Diane Keaton? Téa Leoni is that good with Woody Allen.