Allen comes out shooting blanks

Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway is his first film conceived and completed since his bruising battles with Mia Farrow. Adam Mars-Jones sees signs of strain
Woody Allen has always been an uneven film-maker, and perhaps it's jumping the gun to see any significant decline in his new piece of work, Bullets Over Broadway. It's still early days since the crisis of privacy and publicity that in many people's eyes lost Allen his position as the king of comic failure, patron saint of urban anxiety. Since then, there has been the excellent Husbands and Wives - released after the scandal broke, but made before it - and Manhattan Murder Mystery, a likeably lightweight project that had been on the back burner for years. Bullets Over Broadway, written in collaboration with Douglas McGrath, is the first new offering, a period piece set in the 1920s whose characters are either gangsters or bohemians.

The period setting seems chosen so as to make the film's physical world appear as distant as its themes: the opposition between Art and Life, both somehow capitalised. The hero, David Shayne (John Cusack) is a playwright, so he imagines he has chosen Art over Life. But would he actually put a greater value on an art work than a person, even a bad person? This is the subject of an early debate in a sidewalk caf, but then David is confronted with the dilemma in sober fact.

The Jazz Age in the film is a thoroughly second-class business, too many sequences start with a close-up of a dancing girl, widening to show the whole troupe doing their stuff, then a conversation carried on with them as a background. Their outfits might as well be embroidered with the motto "A New Costume Is Cheaper Than A New Set".

There seems to be no point to making a period movie if you see the chief virtue of the past as being its remoteness from a bruising present. It wasn't the past at the time.

Woody Allen isn't anybody's idea of an action director. The obligatory sequences of gangland violence come across as precisely that: obligatory sequences of gangland violence. They aren't real enough to make the killers' indifference shocking. They talk of food and gambling at a scene of bloodshed but black comedy needs more work: later on, Woody Allen putting "Lazy River" on the soundtrack for a riverside killing just seems like lazy irony. There's a scene towards the end of the film where a gangster responsible for an unauthorised murder is grilled by his ruthless boss, but you would be hard put to find any excitement in the way the scene is played and shot. There is scarcely even the pretence of tension.

David compromises his Art by accepting tainted money in order to finance production of his new play, and must tolerate the presence in the cast of a talentless floozy who happens to be the backer's moll. The predictable traumas of putting on a show are duly paraded. Will the nymphomaniac keep her hands to herself? Will the compulsive eater resist the siren song of a Swiss roll? Hardly.

It's been a theme in Allen's films since at least Interiors that vitality in women is somehow grotesque. Bullets Over Broadway takes this further than ever before, with no less than three grotesquely vital female characters. There's the floozy, played by Jennifer Tilly; there's a supporting actress in David's play (Tracey Ullman), with a chihuahua and a hysterically brittle manner; and there's a grande dame of the theatre, played by Dianne Wiest. Wiest, playing against her natural warmth and making her voice imperious, has the best of it, but all three characters are deluded and unsympathetic. (The charm quotient of the film as a whole is unusually low.) Perhaps Woody Allen should think twice about mocking their vitality, since without them his film would have little enough of its own.

Dianne Wiest's character in Hannah and Her Sisters, one of her important early roles, was a writer about whose talent Woody Allen seemed unable to make up his mind: one moment she was a pretentious neurotic, the next she was the real thing. There is a corresponding wavering in the presentation of the hero in Bullets Over Broadway. At the beginning of the film, he is talented enough to convince a veteran producer of his worth, if not his bankability, but then the film turns rather arbitrarily against him.

The Coen Brothers' Barton Fink did something similar, out of a strange need to mock the idea that Art might actually be about something, and at one point Jeffrey Kurland, the costume designer of Bullets Over Broadway, seems to out-Barton Fink Barton Fink. Where John Turturro in the title role of that film wore a distinctive button-up singlet, John Cusack as David Shayne wears a whole one-piece undergarment that likewise buttons up.

It turns out in Bullets Over Broadway that Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), the hoodlum assigned to watch over the floozy, half bodyguard and half chaperone, is 100 per cent artist under the surface. He starts making suggestions for improving David's play and, as his confidence grows, pretty much rewrites it. Consequently David has to ask himself if he isn't after all a trespasser on the sacred turf of Art.

These reversals, though, have none of the playful logic and sheer momentum of The Purple Rose of Cairo, an earlier example of a Woody Allen film in which Art and Life change places. Perhaps this is because Allen has chosen to theorise about art in bad faith - that is, in a way that his own working method directly contradicts. In the film, a true artist would be ruthless in human terms in pursuit of his vision, and anyone who is willing to compromise thereby proves his or her inadequacy as a creator. These terms don't alter as the plot is worked out. It's just that people come to occupy different places in the scheme.

Film, though, is inherently a collaborative art, and Woody Allen is known for the freedom he gives his actors. The performers are actively encouraged to make their own contribution. So it is that the last words spoken by Cheech, the uncompromising Artist, were not written by Allen but improvised by the actor. Very good words they are, too, but they do nothing to stop Bullets Over Broadway being a triply baffling failure: a period film extraordinarily remote from the life of any period, a perversely insincere treatise on the nature of art, and a comedy that takes place at a safe distance from laughter.