Bullets Over Broadway (1994) / Comedy-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for language and some violence
Running time: 98 min.

Cast: John Cusack, Chazz Palminteri, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Tilly, Mary-Louise Parker, Jack Warden, Joe Viterelli, Rob Reiner, Tracey Ullman, Jim Broadbent, Harvey Fierstein, Edie Falco, Debi Mazar, Tony Sirico, Tony Darrow
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen, Douglas McGrath

Review published July 26, 2007

It's the 1920s, the Jazz Age in New York.  Struggling intellectual playwright David Shayne (Cusack, The Grifters) finally has the chance to earn his first Broadway production, but to have the finances to see his dream come true, he has to make one concession -- casting two-bit dancer-turned-actress Olive Neal (Tilly, The Fabulous Baker Boys), the main squeeze of notorious mobster Nick Valenti (Viterelli, State of Grace).  While Olive's bad acting threatens to ruin the play, her bodyguard, a thug by the name of Cheech (Palminteri, A Bronx Tale), soon proves invaluable through his street-smart insight into human nature and realistic dialogue.  As Shayne struggles to maintain control of his own play when others agree with Cheech's contributions, his marriage threatens to dissolve when he becomes enamored of his leading lady, a once-vaunted stage actress named Helen Sinclair (Wiest, The Lost Boys). 

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, Wiest being the only winner for Best Supporting Actress, Bullets Over Broadway stands as Woodt Allen's (Manhattan Murder Mystery, Alice) last notable, universally satisfying work.  Although Allen's writing and direction are as sharp as ever, where Bullets Over Broadway rises above most Allen works of the 1990s is in the phenomenal casting, with every actor adding a great deal to his or her role, to the point where it's difficult to imagine anyone doing better.  Wisely, Allen doesn't cast himself in the lead role of the neurotic playwright, and he doesn't ask Cusack to mimic his mannerisms to the point where he's doing an all-out Allen imitation, as he has other lead actors in films where he doesn't star.  Although the accolades went to Wiest (whose "Don't speak" became the movies most famous of lines), and Tilly is finally cast in a role that perfectly suits her personality, it's Chazz Palminteri that has the most surprising appeal, delivering a performance that is both threatening and comical at the same time. 

Bullets Over Broadway succeeds because it's a comedy that generates laughs by establishing the characters first, their main motivations next, and then develops them as they traverse through the story that doesn't appear too mechanical to enjoy.  Although all of the characters are detestable in terms of their actions and egotism, we like them all despite their vices, and seeing them engage with each other and constantly manipulate the situation proves to be one of the more subtle delights in a film full of such choice little moments. 

Allen is in top form, working with co-screenwriter Douglas McGrath (Nicholas Nickleby, Emma), looking like he's revitalized by such a lively cast, an era in music and style he thoroughly enjoys, and subject matter that he's more than familiar with.  The film itself is about the conflicted nature of the artist himself, wanting to express oneself in his own fashion and yet wanting desperately to be appreciated by his peers and the public at large.  In the end, it's Allen that strips away most of his esoteric inclinations to deliver one of his more populist works, and that he does so without losing artistic integrity is the most commendable of feats.  Perhaps McGrath's input mirrored Cheech's in reeling in Allen's recent tendencies to intellectualize his story to the point where the audience can no longer relate to his singular vision.

Bullets Over Broadway isn't Allen's best film, but it is one of his most enjoyable.  I'd definitely recommend the film to those who normally veer away from Allen's films, and it is especially accessible for first-timers interested in giving his work a shot.  Great costumes and cinematography too.  It won't change your life, but you'll probably find much to treasure in its meager 96-minute run time. 

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo