Woody Allen, as good as most of his films are, is prone to a misstep every now and again. It hurts the most when the Woodster has an airtight premise for a comedy, then proceeds to make every wrong decision in bringing it to the screen. "Hollywood Ending" (IMDb listing), the filmmaker's 33rd feature, is far from his worst film, but represents probably some of the biggest miscalculations of his lengthy and glorious career.
Val Waxman (Woody Allen) is at the bottom rung of his filmmaking career. Because Val is stuck doing deodorant commercials in the wilds of Canada, he has almost given up on directing so he can spend more time complaining about his life to his latest fling (Debra Messing). With the support of his studio-executive/ex-wife (Tea Leoni), Val is given anther shot in the big leagues: directing a big-budget period gangster film. But when personal issues overcome Val, he is struck with hysterical blindness, thus seemingly unable to finish directing the film. Help arrives when Val's agent (Mark Rydell) convinces the filmmaker to not tell anyone about his affliction, and to continue on as if nothing has happened, thus confusing everyone around him.
"Hollywood Ending" comes from the same Woody Allen that once attempted to discover his old celebrity self with 1980's "Stardust Memories." And while "Ending" isn't nearly as arty or eloquent as "Memories," there is still that feeling of introspection that Allen always has cooking on the backburner. There are jabs and left hooks to Hollywood practices and Allen's own place in the mix in "Ending," and thankfully those asides are muted enough to not get in the way of the story. Allen also has some leftover bile to throw at the city of Los Angeles from the "Annie Hall" days, with cracks about skin cancer and the like weaving throughout the picture. But unlike any Allen movie before, these jokes come off as sour grapes. "Ending" feels more like a late-in-the-game javelin thrown at an establishment that Allen has never been a part of before. Sure, making a "Haley Joel Osment winning a life achievement award" joke is funny, but Allen has never been desperate for chuckles before, and his outsider-looking-in approach to the Hollywood razzing left me cold. It's rarely funny when Hollywood makes fun of Hollywood, but watching a master filmmaker, who spent his entire career on his own terms, make fun of studio heads and gross points? Even for Allen, it just doesn't work.
The joys of "Ending" are easy to isolate: Tea Leoni's performance as Val's long-suffering ex is the model of how all actresses in Allen's films should be. Leoni is strong, funny and most importantly, believable in her romantic dealings with Allen. Sure, there is that creepy "younger woman" element that keeps getting stronger as Allen grows older (here it comes in the form of Messing and seductress Tiffani Thiessen), but Leoni's relationship with Allen feels natural, or at least more natural than his previous co-stars. The scenes between Allen and his creative melting pot of collaborators were also enjoyable. Allen gets a lot of comic mileage out of Val's Chinese cinematographer and his flamboyant production designer (played by comic gem Isaac Mizrahi). As deeply "inside industry" as these asides are, Allen keeps their behavior and performances pretty broad, thus mining the deepest laughs of the entire picture.
But what ultimately makes the failure of "Hollywood Ending" so painful is that Allen is squandering a priceless story. The plot is ripe for delicious slapstick, and Allen refuses to indulge himself like he did with 2000's "Small Time Crooks." Instead, the laughs that Allen creates in the film's first half are washed away by the brutal switch to drama and some extraneous subplots that finish the picture. Not that the dramatics featuring Val trying to get back in touch with his estranged son, or even the dealings with his ex-wife are especially downbeat, but for a comedy this silly, there is no need to diverge from the main focus. Allen has a habit of piling on a little too much extra baggage to his films, but nothing has crippled a picture as much as "Hollywood Ending."
Filmfodder Grade: C