Is Woody Allen wimping out? His detractors figure it this way: Allen's personal hell with Mia Farrow, a harsh press and a dwindling cult have driven the auteur of comic angst to dull the edge of his boldest work and slide into escapism. Among the damning evidence: last year's frivolous Manhattan Murder Mystery and ABC's upcoming Don't Drink the Water — a retread of his joke-a-minute 1966 Broadway play about a Jewish caterer — which represents, yikes, his first movie for television. And now there's Bullets Over Broadway, a flashy Roaring '20s farce that lets Allen hide behind gags, gangsters and showgirls — he doesn't act in the film — and duck responsibility to his art, his audience and his troubled times.
A persuasive argument? Only if you're not paying attention. Bullets is one of Allen's best and most revealing comedies, as much a moral meditation as it is dazzling fun. Santo Loquasto's sets, Jeffrey Kurland's costumes and Carlo Di Palma's cinematography create a Damon Runyon landscape that may blind you at first. But the glitz doesn't stop Allen and a knockout cast of guys and dolls from firing on all cylinders at crimes committed in the name of love and art.
"I'm an artist," says David Shayne, the playwright-director slyly played by John Cusack with the brash ego and stammering manner of a young Woody Allen. David finds his integrity under constant siege. Producer Julian Marx (Jack Warden) can't find backing for David's serious play "God of Our Fathers" unless David gives a role to Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly), the squealing doxy of mobster Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli). Though David gives in and absurdly casts Olive as a psychiatrist, he wakes up screaming to his girl, Ellen (Mary-Louise Parker): "I'm a whore. I've sold out."
It's a familiar cry, but Allen and cowriter Douglas McGrath of the toothless Born Yesterday remake dig deeper. Take Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), the Broadway legend David persuades to star in his play. She scares the hell out of the gluttonous leading man (Jim Broadbent), the chatty ingTnue (Tracey Ullman), the caustic agent (Harvey Fierstein) and David himself. The wispy Wiest is hardly typecast as this towering, throaty Tallulah, but she delivers a comic tour de force. Wiest skirts caricature by finding the threatened child in this aging, boozing diva. Using a ravishing Central Park as her backdrop, Helen seduces David to win control. Helen is an artist; she makes her own rules.
So does Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), the hitman assigned by boss Valenti to be Olive's watchdog during rehearsals. Cheech has more respect for racehorses than for the stilted lines he hears coming from the stage. "You don't write like people talk," Cheech tells David, offering suggestions that David at first defensively rejects and then aggressively seeks out in secret meetings in bars and pool halls. Cheech is one of Allen' richest creations — a primitive with talent and the emotional heft to back it up. Palminteri, the actor-writer best known for A Bronx Tale, is dynamite in the role, keeping humor and gravity in riveting flux. It's a joy to watch the artist awaken in Cheech, until we realize Cheech will kill for his art.
David is appalled. He turns to his mentor Sheldon Flender (Rob Reiner), a Greenwich Village pedant who sees David's crass ambition as a betrayal of art. But the ultimate betrayal comes when David finds Sheldon boffing the much younger Ellen. "An artist creates his own moral universe," Sheldon tells David. "The heart obeys its own rules." It's hard not to compare Sheldon's words with published Allen interviews ("The heart wants what it wants") that justified his own romantic affairs.
Is it a sign of growth that Allen portrays Sheldon as an arrogant jerk? You be the judge. But there is no denying that Bullets is wrestling with matters of conscience far beyond the call of a breakneck burlesque. David turns on Helen, Cheech and Sheldon, opting for love over career. "I'm not an artist," he tells Ellen, eating his earlier words. It's unlikely that Allen feels the same. As the robust humor and rueful wisdom of Bullets suggest, art is still of the essence for the 58-year-old filmmaker. The difference now is that for the first time in 25 years and 25 movies, Allen is saying that art is no excuse.