After years of ups and downs ' first the ups, then the downs ' Woody Allen's career now has its Hollywood Ending. And I won't begrudge Allen his happiness one bit if he promises to make this his final ending. With Allen, there's a tendency to review his entire career instead of the movie at hand, partly because the career still means so much to us and partly because, more often than not, the movie at hand doesn't. In my opinion, Hollywood Ending is the worst thing he's ever done, and as the movies keep piling up at the rate of one failed comedy per year, that's really saying something. I liked Sweet and Lowdown and Manhattan Murder Mystery; many people liked Bullets Over Broadway. Otherwise, the last 10 years have been a washout.
Which brings us to Val Waxman, a "washed-up, neurotic director in desperate need of a comeback," according to Hollywood Ending's press material. Val, as portrayed by Allen in the only performance he knows how to give, is a set of neurotic tics that, like the gumshoe Allen played in last year's Curse of the Jade Scorpion, attracts beautiful women like flies. Last time, it was Helen Hunt, Charlize Theron and Showgirls' Elizabeth Berkley pawing on Allen's tweed jacket. This time, it's Tea Leoni, Debra Messing and Tiffani Thiessen. It used to feel liberating when Allen, the ultimate schlemiel, bagged another shiksa. Now, it feels depressing, yet another sign that, while stuck in his creative rut, Allen hasn't noticed that life is passing him by.
Leoni plays Val's ex-wife, Ellie, who uses her romantic involvement with a movie producer to secure Val another big-budget Hollywood contract. Why she does this is kept from us until the end of the movie. As is the explanation for Val's psychosomatic blindness, which strikes right before the first day of filming. Fine, dramaturgy was never Allen's strong suit, but comedy supposedly was. And Hollywood Ending can't begin to figure out how to exploit its comic premise ' a director who only pretends to see. Back in the days of Annie Hall and Manhattan, Allen seemed to understand how (one small part of) the world worked. These days, he either takes refuge in an imaginary past or stumbles through an imaginary present. The guy needs to get out more.
Or take some time off. Like the rest of us, directors get older, slow down, retire. But Allen keeps showing up for work every day, prepared to crack another joke. "Are moose carnivorous?" Val inquires from the Canadian wilderness, where he's shooting a deodorant commercial. Is that supposed to be funny? And what about all the "sight" gags like "Val has a vision"? Waving his arms while staring off into the distance, Allen gives it everything he's got; he wants to please us this time. But the material just isn't there, which throws off the performances. Even George Hamilton, as a movie producer who's spent a fortune perfecting his tan, seems miscast. Nothing means much in this misguided nod to Fellini's 8. Allen's trifling with us...and with himself.