[Screen It]

(2002) (Woody Allen, Téa Leoni) (PG-13)

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Comedy: A down on his luck director goes blind after being hired by his ex-wife and tries to helm his comeback picture without letting anyone know he can't see anything.
Val Waxman (WOODY ALLEN) is a former Oscar-winning director whose reputation for being difficult to work with and lack of crafting a recent hit has left him ostracized in Hollywood. Now living with Lori (DEBRA MESSING), a much younger and aspiring actress, he's been reduced to filming commercials in Canada, but can't even keep that job.

Fortunately for him, Ellie (TÉA LEONI), his ex-wife and current movie producer, still has faith in his moviemaking abilities and is trying to convince her Galaxie Studio cohorts, Hal (TREAT WILLIAMS) and Ed (GEORGE HAMILTON), that Val would be perfect for their latest, big budget film, "The City That Never Sleeps."

They're naturally reluctant, as is Val when his agent, Al (MARK RYDELL), informs him of the possible gig. For Val, the situation is more complicated due to Ellie having left him for Hal who runs the studio that's to employ him. Nevertheless, and realizing it could be his last shot at making a feature film, Val decides to do it, while Ellie has convinced Hal and Ed that things will go smoothly.

Not surprisingly, they don't. Beyond the Chinese cinematographer who requires a translator, the production designer with expensive tastes in sets, and a lead actress, Sharon Bates (TIFFANI THIESSEN), who comes on to him, Val suddenly goes blind the night before the first day of shooting.

The doctors and psychiatrists agree that it's psychosomatic and probably related to Val's estranged relationship with his young adult son, Tony (MARK WEBBER), but Al persuades Val that he must continue and not let anyone know of his sudden malady. From that point on, Val tries to direct the film that he can't see, all while attempting to keep that a secret from everyone else and dealing with the various complications that ensue.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
As everyone knows, art imitates life and life imitates art. The latest such example of that is writer/director Woody Allen's newest film, "Hollywood Ending." In it, a once revered and honored filmmaker, who's fallen on hard times critically and commercially, gets another chance at career revival by helming a film that might reinstate his identity and worth in the filmmaking world. As luck would have it, he must then deal with sudden blindness that threatens would could be his last shot at directing a feature.

That director is played by Allen, a former Oscar winning director who was once the end all, be all of filmmakers but hasn't had a commercial or universally accepted artistic success of recent and appears to be running out of opportunities to revive his reputation.

The irony is that there isn't any real irony in that similarity, but rather another self-referential bit that Allen has purposefully inserted into the film. Woody, of course, isn't physically blind and presumably wasn't when he made this film, unlike his character who suffers from a psychosomatic malady.

The unfortunate connection, though, is that Allen has apparently lost his filmmaking vision and is blind to what makes a good film, how to play an entertaining comedic character, and what audiences - both his established fan base and the overall moviegoing public - wants to see. Although I doubt this will be his last shot at helming a picture, it's yet another disappointing effort from a filmmaker who once made some terrific, award-winning films.

Like many of his other failed and/or less than successful recent efforts, the premise here is amusing, but doesn't successfully expand into a full-length feature (although it thankfully doesn't reek of a feature adaptation of a "Saturday Night Live" skit). The notion of sudden blindness threatening a director's last chance at redemption is obviously teeming with comedic possibilities, and if handled just right could be a classic farce.

Alas, Allen fails in all three aspects in which he's involved in this production. As writer and director, he obviously tries to recapture the charm and brilliance of some his previous lighthearted efforts, and some of the dialogue is amusing and occasionally rather funny in an intellectual, wordsmith sort of way. The problem is that such wordplay is often better in concept than execution (where one appreciates it but isn't likely to bust a gut upon hearing it), which also holds true for the basic plot and its details, all of which are missing the correct clever and/or imaginative touch.

Everything is played too broadly, the comedic timing and pacing are all off, and the comedic complications and story developments don't live up to one's hopes and expectations of what he'll do with the premise and resultant material.

An equally vexing problem is with Allen ("The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," "Annie Hall") playing the main character. Beyond the self-referential bit, the actor plays the part all wrong in just about every way imaginable. For those who've grown tired of Allen's normal performance shtick, his work here will undoubtedly grate even more than usual. The worst part, however, is how he plays this particular character and his physical malady.

I'm not blind, but it seems to me that it would be relatively easy to pick out the general direction from which another person's voice is coming. For some reason, Allen either doesn't think so or couldn't look in another performer's direction without moving his eyes. As a result, and throughout the film, he stares off in a different direction from those with whom he's conversing. The effect is presumably supposed to be funny since he repeatedly returns to it. Instead, it's more inane than hilarious and progressively turns ever more irksome and redundant with each occurrence.

I can imagine any number of other comedic actors doing so much more with the blind physical act - such as the late Peter Sellers - but Allen simply can't pull it off. It's so bad that one is apt to think that was the desired result, but it's hard to imagine why one would go after that as a filmmaker.

Other running gags include Allen's character ranting and raving about his ex-wife leaving him sometime in the past, but that and the intentional overacting by Debra Messing ("The Mothman Prophecies," TV's "Will & Grace") similarly wear thin rather quickly. She and Téa Leoni ("Jurassic Park III," "The Family Man") fulfill Allen's usual quota of much younger leading ladies being involved with him, with Leoni doing a decent job in her fairly limited and predictable role (don't forget the film's title in terms of how things eventually play out).

Mark Rydell ("Intersection," "For the Boys") is good as the protagonist's hands on agent, but Treat Williams ("Deep Rising," "The Devil's Own") and especially George Hamilton ("Zorro, the Gay Blade," "Love at First Bite") can't do much with their roles. Mark Webber ("Storytelling," "Snow Day") is good but underused as the protagonist's punk rocker son, while Tiffani Thiessen ("The Ladies Man," TV's "Beverly Hills 90210") is present in just one scene to play up a blind seduction gag.

Considering the premise and setup, the ensuing comedic complications, character traits and interaction could have resulted in a comedic tour de force. Considering the result, however, that would have necessitated having a different person both in front of and behind the camera. Instead, we get standard Allen material - or at least the more recent version of that - and it's nowhere as funny or entertaining as it could and should have been. "Hollywood Ending" rates as just a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 25, 2002 / Posted May 3, 2002

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