“Hollywood Ending” (2002)
by A.J. Hakari
Most comedies about the filmmaking process inevitably let me down. Where I anticipate no-punches-pulled levels of savagery on par with The Player, I usually get show business softballs. Studio executives are clueless meatheads with box office on the brain? Buxom starlets want to screw their way onto the marquee? Stop it, the insight’s too much! That said, I didn’t quite think Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending would be a merciless work (of which he’s capable — Stardust Memories, anyone?), and upon its theatrical release, I got a kick out of the picture’s gentle jabs. But as both silly farce and clever satire, Hollywood Ending has weakened a decade down the line, amusing in patches but disconnected and half-cocked on the whole.
Allen plays Val Waxman, a director whose days as an auteur are long behind him. Now he’s grateful to get a gig on a deodorant ad, though an unlikely source is about to give him one last shot at saving his career. Galaxie Pictures is preparing a big-budget period drama, and the producer, Val’s ex Ellie (Tea Leoni), thinks he’s the right helmsman for the job. Despite some misgivings — including the fact that Ellie is currently shacked up with Galaxie’s head honcho (Treat Williams) — Val accepts and sets about getting himself back on track. That is, until the first day of shooting, when all of Val’s neuroses and worries manifest themselves in a bout of psychosomatic blindness, forcing Val to think fast and keep his ailment under wraps long enough to finish filming a movie he can’t even see.
Any way you interpret it, Hollywood Ending is pretty lacking. As a straight comedy, the jokes are obvious and of scant variety. Constantly espousing about his blindness and explaining the hell out of a long-established gimmick doesn’t earn Allen many giggles (neither does his sporadic stumbling into furniture). Even the Hollywood digs are on the pale side, culminating in a few nice one-liners (as when Ellie has an assistant congratulate Haley Joel Osment on a lifetime achievement award) but nothing with the teeth to tear the industry open from the inside out. But as an opportunity for Allen to air out concerns for his personal and professional lives, Hollywood Ending especially misses the boat. With subplots involving failed marriage(s) and shortcomings as a parent, you’d think Allen was moving in a therapeutic direction with his story. Alas, this is lovably neurotic Woody we’re dealing with here, so every step towards developing his character is cut short by a vixen inexplicably eager to jump his bespectacled bones.
Is it fair to say Hollywood Ending feels like it’s on autopilot? As much as I hate to parrot critics who keep talking about how Allen’s newer stuff isn’t as good as his old stuff, it kind of does, but that doesn’t mean the Woodster never tries here. It’s in bits of scenarios and pieces of dialogue scattered throughout, but Hollywood Ending is darn funny when it can be. Of particular help is a cast that’s actively trying not to let their respective performances fall into broad stereotypes. Allen’s Val is another story, but Leoni’s Ellie is headstrong and affectionate, Williams is a likably oafish studio boss, and as Val’s agent, Mark Rydell is charmingly sneaky but supportive. It might’ve been at the cost of some biting observations on how Tinseltown works, but you get the impression that Allen likes his characters, which you just don’t see much in flicks like this.
I’m sure half of why I dug Hollywood Ending back in the day was because it was one of the first times I actually got to see a Woody Allen movie on the big screen. Some references and moments still make me smile (such as how Val’s film is ultimately received), but as an Allen picture and as a comedy on its own, there’s just not enough juicy material to sustain one’s interest beyond these brief moments. All in all, Hollywood Ending can’t decide between being a love note to the movie biz or being a “Dear John” letter.