Wednesday, October 26, 2011

John Cusack Focus: Bullets Over Broadway Movie Review

This may be less a John Cusack film than a Woody Allen film, but it's far enough against type for Cusack that I think it's interesting to include it in this short compendium. I could just as easily file this review under my "Modern Classics" heading. This film almost made my list of the top 5 Woody Allen films. So close!

Of all of Woody Allen’s films, Bullets Over Broadway might be the most underrated. And though John Cusack is just one in a long line of actors to basically perform the Woody role on screen, his is probably the best. Not only does he get the mannerisms, the rhythms of speech, and the mania one hundred percent right, but somehow he makes the role his own. It’s less straight imitation than internal adaptation.

Cusack plays budding New York playwright David Shane in the 1930s (one of Allen’s most preferred epochs). He’s just finished a new play – his third – and his producer Julian (Jack Warden) finds financing in a rather unusual place. Well, maybe not so unusual given the time period and economic climate. A mob boss named Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli) agrees to foot the bill with one caveat – his ingĂ©nue girlfriend gets to star. Jennifer Tilly plays the girl, olive, a dancer with experience limited to musical revues. Tilly play the airhead to perfection in one of three Oscar-nominated performances in the film. Though Mira Sorvino won the same award the following year playing another Allen female lead with sub-par intelligence, Tilly is so convincing here it’s hard to believe she’s acting.

Allowing Olive the key role of a psychiatrist in his play is David’s first compromise after avowing that his art would go on stage in its purest form (meaning his own vision). What David quickly discovers is that art, if you want any commercial success, inevitably involves some compromise. This is why his friend Flender (Rob Reiner) is able to stake a claim to being a true artist – because none of his plays have been produced. After all, most of the great artists were never appreciated during their lives, he tells David.

The other two great performances are provided by Dianne Wiest and Chazz Palminteri. Wiest is Helen Sinclair, an aging theater diva whose mannerisms of theatricality may have been inspired by Norma Desmond. Palminteri plays Cheech, a goon working for Valenti and bodyguard to Olive. Though he’s a simple button man with a gambling problem, he has an incredible ear for dialogue and an innate understanding of dramatic form. Palminteri plays him as a strong-arm thug with a great sense of pride in what he produces as he begins to help David with rewrites and grows incensed at Olive as she butchers his work. Cheech is a reminder that deep down everyone yearns to create and some have the gift while others don’t.

Helen presents another set of problems for David. She recognizes that David’s play needs adjustments and using her experience, star power, and feminine wiles, manipulated David into altering her character from frigid and sexless to tempestuous and humid. Her machinations cause David to fall in love with her, which probably won’t be very pleasing to his girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker). The question that haunts David, and comes up repeatedly with Flender, is whether a person falls in love with the artist or the man. This issue is a little bit flat and ultimately remains underexplored in Allen’s screenplay (he also shares writing credit with Douglas McGrath).

That is probably the one weak spot in an otherwise great screenplay. It’s without a doubt one of Allen’s most purely entertaining films, replete with acerbic wit and classic one-liners combined with a 1930s gangster sensibility. Had he not been up against PulpFiction the same year I don’t see how Allen would have lost the Original Screenplay Oscar.

Also noteworthy are early screen roles for “The Sopranos’” Tony Sirico as another of Valenti’s henchmen, and Jim Broadbent as an increasingly rotund stage actor who takes the male lead in David’s play. Tracey Ullman fills out the remainder of the stage cast. 

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