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There isn't much to be said anymore, for or even about Woody Allen's films. His early comedies are acts of genius; they're well known, well written-about, and beloved by an audience that recognizes his Chaplinesque brilliance (in case you've forgotten, he was a great physical comedian whose skill was overlooked by those who responded only to his verbal wit. See "Sleeper" for a dozen examples.). Even his dramas, those homages to Ingmar Bergman, have a depth and perception about contemporary life that reward repeated viewing.
But with the exception of "Sweet and Lowdown" his recent films have been increasingly dreary exercises in monomania, to the point where we start to squirm in our seats as yet another beautiful woman thirty years younger pretends to fall in love with his character. Last time it was Helen Hunt, this time, in "Hollywood Ending," it's Téa Leoni. The story is more than serviceable - Allen can still write with the best of them - and it begins with Leoni, as Ellie, a Hollywood studio producer, fighting with Hal, her fiancé and studio head (played by Treat Williams), to let Allen, as the has-been director Val Waxman, make a comeback with a New York period film called "The City that Never Sleeps."
At this point there is a fascinating reference to real life. In the film, Ellie is Val's ex-wife. We are told that she was his second wife, and that they were married for ten years, which puts Ellie in the same age bracket as Soon Yi, Allen's own child bride. You may make of that what you will. At any rate, when shooting starts Val comes down with a case of hysterical blindness, but must continue directing so that no one will notice. In the past, Allen would have played the physical comedy of the situation like the master he was; now we get only one pratfall, plus a series of very strange encounters in which Allen holds conversations by looking away from the person, when in reality he would have easily followed the sound of their voices. Not only is it not funny, it is impossible.
Val is helped for a while by his agent Al Hack (the director Mark Rydell in a set of cheesy capped teeth), and then when Al is kicked off the set, by a young NYU business student and translator for Val's Chinese cinematographer who only speaks Mandarin (another reference to real life, as Allen has used a Chinese cinematographer for all his recent films, up to this one, in which his cinematographer is a German named Wedigo Von Schultzendorff, and yes I looked it up; he exists and he's shot fifteen films including this one); the translator is played by Barney Cheng with a lovely earnestness. These are all classic comic opportunities, but at every stage Allen's comic timing is off. Nothing plays in a proper rhythm, no scenes have punchlines, the gag setups are vague and unfocused, and the laughs are unheard.
There are a few good moments. While Max is blind, his leading lady takes him into her dressing room, wearing only sexy underwear, and tells him that she loves to perform sexual favors for all her directors. He tells her to take an ad in the Directors Guild magazine: "You'll always have work," he says. But the tedium of watching once again Allen's helpless gestures, his stammer, his frightened deer-in-the-headlights look, is painful beyond belief. There are a dozen or more good comic actors who could have played Val Waxman better than Allen himself; you wish he'd given one of them the chance. <! new pasted review ends on line above>