Like any Allen film -- excepting the self-consciously "serious" ones -- Hollywood Ending has a number of clever plot contrivances and first-rate zingers. It may not even be the worst film Allen has made. But it's the ways in which it's bad that make it so dispiriting an experience -- particularly for those of us who are die-hard fans.
The film's classic, Hollywood-style farce premise has substantial promise. Val Waxman (Allen) is a once-mighty director who has fallen on hard times. He has two Oscars under his belt, but his neurotic, artistic temperament and, even more, his out-of-control hypochondria have rendered him unemployable. Reduced to shooting TV commercials, he is thrilled when his agent, Al (director Mark Rydell, as usual more effective in front of the camera than behind it), sends him a terrific script called The City That Never Sleeps -- a project that would be perfect for Val, the quintessential director of New York-centric movies.
Of course, there's a catch: The film will be a production of Galaxy Pictures, run by Hal (Treat Williams), the very studio boss for whom Val's ex-wife, Ellie (Téa Leoni), left him. In fact, it's Ellie -- now a Galaxy executive -- who pushes for Val to get this last big chance to salvage his reputation. Hal agrees that Val is perfect for the material and isn't bothered by the prospect of Ellie and Val working together, but he is reluctant, based on Val's recent track record. Even so, Hal is swayed by Ellie and gives Val the job, sending Ellie to keep tabs on him throughout preproduction.
Things seem relatively hopeful until a few days before shooting begins, when Val, true to form, suddenly goes psychosomatically blind. If word gets out, he's finished, so Al convinces him to forge ahead with the movie, pretending to still have his sight -- an absurd plan that requires a conspiracy involving Al, the Chinese translator, and eventually Ellie. High jinks ensue.
While the subject matter bears some resemblance to Bullets Over Broadway, which still stands as Allen's best film since The Scandal, his intent here seems much lighter. That is, there are no big themes being worked out through the story, no great insights into art or the nature of genius. Which is just fine; the same could be said of all of his "early, funny films," as well as the more recent Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Small Time Crooks. Neither of those last two was a masterpiece, but no one was likely to find them embarrassing, either.
What's particularly scary about Hollywood Ending, however, is that its flaws are exactly the sort of problems that often afflict aging directors -- flaws that we've never seen in Allen before: bad comic timing, slack pacing, an unsteady control of tone, a reliance on jokes that have long since become clichés.
While other Allen misfires suggested a great artist having a bad day, Hollywood Ending is the first Allen film to suggest a great artist losing it altogether. It even invites horrifying comparison to Buddy, Buddy, Billy Wilder's last project -- the only Wilder film in which the great man's strong suits seemed to have utterly deserted him. On top of that, there's the ever-recurring issue of the autobiographical content in Allen's work. He constantly denies it while crafting films that make the connections unavoidable. Here, it's not just the ways in which Val's loss of power is an exaggerated version of Allen's own ebb over the last 10 years. There are little reminders along the way, like a poster for Manhattan Moods, an earlier Waxman film, that mimics the Manhattan logo.
In that light, it's impossible not to grimace when Val says, "The heart is very unpredictable" -- a minor paraphrase of Allen's infamous explanation way back when for his romance with Soon-Yi. And that brings us to the matter of Allen's casting of himself. He may be the best performer of his own work, but the age disparity between Allen and his leading ladies gets more distracting with every film. They're getting younger as he gets older: first Tracy Ullman (24 years' difference), then Helen Hunt (28 years), and now Leoni (31 years); not to mention the other two romantic objects in the film, Debra Messing (33 years) and Tiffani Thiessen (39 years -- younger even than Soon-Yi!). It's a valid issue that his onscreen pairings look so inappropriate -- Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow were only 10 years his junior. The film Allen is currently shooting has him co-starring with Christina Ricci. Please, please say that she's playing his granddaughter, not his girlfriend.