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.

Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower