Bullets Over Broadway (1994): Woody Allen’s Charming Comedy

Woody Allen insists on casting Hollywood’s hottest actors (at the moment) in his new pictures. But once he gets them, he doesn’t give them much to do. In Shadows and Fog, the l992 disappointing exercise in expressionist style, he cast Jodie Foster and Kathy Bates as prostitutes. Last year, the great Anjelica Huston had only a small role in Manhattan Murder Mystery. In his new movie, Bullets Over Broadway, he cast the talented actress Mary Louise Parker and comedian Tracey Ullman in what amounts to cameo roles.

Underdeveloped roles and familiar types may be the chief problems of Bullets Over Broadway, an otherwise handsome production and amusing comedy about artists and gangsters in l920s New York. Essentially a backstage comedy, the film doesn’t break any new ground and it certainly isn’t as insightful or entertaining as Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, with which it shares some thematic motifs.

Allen’s onscreen presence is crucial to his work. He is very much missed in the new picture, though John Cusack is well cast in what might be described as an idealistic view of Allen as a young artist. Cusack plays David Shayne, a naive, idealistic Greenwich Village playwright. As Allen’s alter ego, Cusack is more handsome, but his character contains some of the quintessential elements of the Allen persona–he’s neurotic, hypochondriac, and perpetual complainer. And like Allen’s heroes, Shayne is also a hopeless romantic.

What makes Bullets Over Broadway more interesting than its familiar format allows it to be is Allen’s humorous, ambiguous treatment of Shayne, a man who keeps reminding himself and his bohemian friends, “I’m an artist!” meaning he won’t compromise anything for the sake of producing his play, “God of Our Fathers.”

But of course Shayne does compromise. The whole movie unfolds as a series of concessions that Shayne makes, quickly changing his original tune, to the point of waking up at night, after an anxiety attacks, and screaming, “I sold out! I am a whore!”

First, producer Julian Marx (Jack Warden) informs Shayne that he’s found a backer for the play, contingent on his casting the backer’s girlfriend, Olive (Jennifer Tilly) to play one of the prominent roles, a psychiatrist, even though she lacks training, talent, and basic education.

Then, Shayne suffers the humiliation of having to publicly tolerate the critical barbs of Olive’s tough bodyguard, Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), who sits in on all rehearsals to keep an eye on the flirtatious lady. Palminteri, who wrote and starred in De Niro’s delicious A Bronx Tale, provides the film’s most original character–and the twists in a comedy that borrows its premise from Cyrano de Bergerac.

It’s the hoodlum Cheech who tells Shayne, “you don’t write like people talk,” and thereupon goes on to make crucial, if secret, contributions to the play-in progress. It is one of the movie’s ironies that eventually Cheech’s suggestions save the play from a disastrous opening.

The other colorful creature in the movie is Helen Sinclair (played by the fabulous Dianne Wiest), a prima donna with all the grandeur, mannerisms and platitudes that go with such a character. To make the story more diverting, Allen develops an unconvincing affair between the romantic Shayne and the older Sinclair.

The most admirable thing about Allen is his determination and stamina to produce a movie every year, with or without studio backing. Released by Miramax, Bullet Over Broadway is his first independent enterprise away from Tri-Star, but you couldn’t tell it from the production values of the movie, as the same collaborators (designer Santo Loquasto, cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, editor Susan Morse) are reliably behind-the-scenes, endowing the film with a beautiful as well as authentic look.

Mixing conventions of showbiz comedies with those of prohibition gangster melodramas, Bullets Over Broadway is always pleasant and intermittently entertaining. It’s a notch or two more consequential than last year’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, but not as resonant or funny as Allen’s showbiz masterpieces of the l980s, Broadway Danny Rose or The Purple Rose of Cairo.