Woody Allen is back in form after last year’s turgid The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. In Hollywood Ending he plays another of his alter ego roles. Nobody plays Woody Allen better than Woody Allen does and Woody Allen is never funnier than when he is playing himself. It isn’t literally himself, of course; it isn’t autobiographical, but it’s a projection of his worldview and the ironic twist with which he sees things. And, in this case, there are liberal sprinklings of very direct references to his real life movie history.
Here he plays a washed up movie director, Val Waxman, whose career has sunk to making deodorant commercials in Canadian blizzards. His ex-wife Ellie (Tea Leoni) works for Galaxy Films which is headed up by Hal Yaeger (Treat Williams), her current squeeze and the guy for whom she walked out on Val. Galaxy is producing a new film, "The City that Never Sleeps," and Ellie pleads for Val to be hired to direct. After all, she argues, who knows better how to portray New York? But Hal is concerned for his $60 million investment and Val has a history of neurotic hypochondria. Of course, Val gets the job.
As anyone who has seen the trailer knows, the worst happens–in the middle of production Val goes psychosomatically blind. His agent, Al (Mark Rydell), insists that he keep it a secret; if Val loses this job his career is over (and so is Al’s ten per cent). It’s a premise good for some very funny setups, both in lines and in physical comedy. The latter is a light throwback to Allen’s earlier, more slapstick days, but it’s handled here with subtlety and it works.
And, too, the story provides the perfect setup for lots of movie business jokes, agent jokes, and bimbo actress jokes. Indeed, there are two bimbos to milk for laughs. Val’s current girlfriend, Lori (Debra Messing), is an actress who presses him for a role in the film. And the star of "The City that Never Sleeps" also finds Allen irresistable. Allen takes pot shots at the production designers, at the cinematographer who speaks no English, at the auditioning process–there’s hardly an aspect of the business at which he doesn’t take a good, loving, funny swipe. It wouldn’t be a Woody Allen movie if there weren’t also relationship and sex jokes ("Where do marriages go? After a while they just lay there…") as well as potshots at the L.A. lifestyle. And then there is Allen’s alienated son, a spike-haired, multi-pierced grunge who goes by "Scumbag X."
Allen, of course, is Allen. His style of delivering lines as if he were making them up as he stutters along gets just a tad tiresome from time to time; he seems to draw out the delivery even longer than usual, but not enough to do serious damage. In one scene with Ellie, he hysterically goes back and forth between being the reasonable professional director and the neurotic, complaining, guilt-tripping ex-husband. It’s a brilliant schizoid Allen moment.
Leoni (Deep Impact, The Family Man)is charming, largely playing the role of straight woman to Allen’s shenanigans. There isn’t much in the way of chemistry between them which lessens the romantic side of this romantic comedy, but nobody is going to mind much. Debra Messing, best known for her role in TV’s Will & Grace,demonstrates her flair for comedy in a different sort of role here and Mark Rydell makes Al both funny and sympathetic. Treat Williams also is largely in the position of straight man and George Hamilton does his usual stand, showing off his suntan. A slew of smaller roles add to the general hilarity.