- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

Woody Allen has invented for himself an irresistibly absurd alter ego in "Hollywood Ending," his smartest and funniest brainstorm in several years.

He plays Val Waxman, a famously difficult but prestigious film director. Val has been in a slump for about a decade when we encounter him struggling to complete a TV commercial in a blinding Canadian blizzard. Desperate for a feature project that can revive his career and permit him to work in New York City, his native turf Val catches a break from an unexpected source.

His second ex-wife, Ellie, played by Tea Leoni, is now the consort and trusted troubleshooter for a studio boss named Hal (Treat Williams). Their company, Galaxy Pictures, plans to remake a vintage urban melodrama, "The City That Never Sleeps." Ellie believes Val is the right maverick for the job. It's understood that Ellie will keep a close eye on Val during the production, budgeted at $60 million.

Val receives the encouraging news upon his return from the Canadian wilderness and a reunion with his girlfriend, Lori (Debra Messing), an aspiring starlet. It is delivered by, perhaps, the man best qualified in all of show business to relay glad tidings, Mark Rydell as a cherubic agent named Al Hack. The beaming, devoted Al evokes the virtues of Mr. Allen's own Broadway Danny Rose in an even more bighearted and adorable package. Mr. Rydell's embodiment of him is a delight.

Ellie and Al manage to steer Val through some preliminary meetings with Hal and an elegant studio yes man, Ed, an impeccably superfluous presence played by George Hamilton.

Val's ranting manifests itself only in meetings with Ellie, who must rise above lingering accusations of abandonment. It's understandable that she fell in love with the younger, dependable Hal. He doubts that Val can deliver but is fond enough of Ellie to greenlight the deal. Better yet, he takes the consequences like a man of the world.

Val tries to sneak Lori into a small role while pretending she's a stranger. The hoax collapses later in the day when Lori, Val, Ellie and Hall end up at the same restaurant.

On the eve of the shoot, Val suffers a panic attack that leaves him blind temporarily, psychosomatically blind. At the start, only Al is privy to this problem. He improvises by drafting the college student who has been hired to translate between Val and a Chinese cinematographer to become Val's crutch on the set.

The resourceful lad discreetly filters and describes everything so that the countless decisions facing a director can be resolved. Mr. Allen manages to keep the hoax rolling in clever and amusing ways until the denouement, which then springs a couple of surprises, one sweetly rueful and the other downright hilarious, especially to movie buffs.

"Hollywood Ending" has turned out so well that Mr. Allen seems to have been cheating himself and his fans by neglecting a farce about the contemporary movie business until now. His obvious familiarity with the milieu accounts for some admirable throwaways, such as Al's exultant announcement of a contract coup. Galaxy is willing to concede Val "one-tenth of a point of the quadruple break-even" figure once the movie's profits, if any, have been calculated.

"Hollywood Ending" displays expert comic marksmanship, but the verbal nifties may be outnumbered by laugh-out-loud sight gags. These begin when Val returns from Canada with some unexpected souvenirs. They keep accumulating with buoyant frequency.

There's also a delightful bit with a speakerphone that allows Miss Leoni a particularly funny opportunity to define Ellie's mixed feelings of exasperation and tenderness about Val.

Val seems to lose his hearing and sense of direction in the movie, in addition to his sight. Mr. Allen and Mr. Williams share a delirious interlude in which Val is always about 90 degrees off when addressing Hal.

Val Waxman promises to take a worthy place beside Leonard Zelig in Mr. Allen's gallery of lucky bunglers.


***1/2

TITLE: "Hollywood Ending"

RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting profanity, occasional sexual candor and innuendo, allusions to drug use)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Woody Allen. Cinematography by Wedigo von Schultzendorff, production design by Santo Loquasto and editing by Alisa Lepselter

RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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