Woody Allen works a clever twist on the Cyrano theme in “Bullets Over Broadway,” a backstage comedy bolstered by healthy shots of prohibition gangster melodrama and romantic entanglements. Not all the characters in the colorful ensemble cast are well developed, and some of the subplots peter out, but constantly amusing confection keeps improving as it scoots along and result should please the Woodman’s fans, even if breakout with a wider public is unlikely.
This is Allen’s first indie venture away from his longtime studio affiliations, although nothing has changed aesthetically or productionwise in this Miramax release, as longtime behind-the-scenes collaborators are still on board to turn out an unusually handsome 1920s period piece.
Casting lends the film a slightly different feel, however, as Allen is absent onscreen, and, for the first time since “Stardust Memories” (with the exception of “Oedipus Wrecks” in “New York Stories”), neither Diane Keaton nor Mia Farrow turns up in an important female role.
The neurotic, hypochondriacal Allen personality is present nonetheless in the form of David Shayne (John Cusack), a young Greenwich Village playwright who rants, “I’m an artist!” and swears to his bohemian friends that he’ll brook no compromise in the production of his new play.Shane quickly changes his tune, however, when producer Julian Marx (Jack Warden) informs him that he’s found a backer for a Broadway opening of “God of Our Fathers,” with the proviso that the man’s girlfriend play a prominent role.
Persuaded of the wisdom of this course, Shayne, who also insists on directing , goes along with the arrangement, but almost has a seizure when he meets the “actress,” Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly), a goo-voiced bimbo who’s supposed to play a psychiatrist even though she doesn’t know what “masochistic” means and her only qualification for the stage is that she’s the mistress of big-time mobster Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli).
Faced with the consequences of his decision, Shayne wakes up at night shrieking, “I sold out! I’m a whore!” and must also tolerate the critical barbs of Olive’s thuggish bodyguard Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), who sits in on all rehearsals to keep an eye on Olive.
The shenanigans of these characters, as well as the rest of the play’s cast, including Jim Broadbent, Tracey Ullman and grande dame leading lady Dianne Wiest (who takes an intense personal interest in Shayne), consume most of the seriocomic attention as the play wends its way, first to Boston, then back to New York.
Giving the confection some unexpected resonance are, initially, some surprising sparks between fastidious leading man Warner Purcell (Broadbent, in what might once have been called the Denholm Elliott role) and Olive, and, much more important, the evolution of Palminteri’s character.
A street hoodlum and hit man, Cheech begins by telling Shayne, “You don’t write like people talk,” and gradually makes secret contributions to the play-in-progressthat end up saving it from major flopdom. The discovery of one man’s artistry with the simultaneous uncovering of another’s lack of same gives the largely artificial piece some pleasing weight, something aided immeasurably by Palminteri’s thoroughly delightful performance.
Cusack functions as the director’s stand-in right down to the frantic complaining and flailing mannerisms, and Tilly, Viterelli, Warden and Broadbent all deliver expert comic turns.
Wiest is initially on the money as the theatrical prima donna with a creeping Norma Desmond complex, but role acquires no further dimension as matters progress, and her romance with Shayne seems rote. Ullman’s part is even more sketchily written, and Mary-Louise Parker does what little she can on the sidelines as Shayne’s g.f. Rob Reiner has a couple of good scenes as a Village philosopher.
Santo Loquasto’s opulent production design creates magnificent period backdrops for the careening action, Jeffrey Kurland’s costumes complement them perfectly, and Carlo Di Palma’s warm lensing bathes everything in a red-and-yellow glow. In its mixing of showbiz and gangsters, this is a nice companion piece to Allen’s “Broadway Danny Rose,” and about as amusing.