CINEMA : Great gags, bad lines

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The Independent Culture
THE GAGS in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway (12) have the rapid retort of machine-gun fire. Fittingly - as this is Allen's most violent film to date. Like Alan Ayckbourn, his only match for comic prolificity, Allen gets darker as he gets greyer. Nobody came to grief in his early films, except for a pair of lobsters. When it came to facing the ultimate test, he was true to his word, as stammered out in 1975's Love and Death - preferring to "take the written". There was plenty of theorising and fear, but not much death. That changed with Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) which flaunted murder and flouted retribution. Then Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) lured Woody into Double Indemnity territory, topping things off with a Lady from Shanghai shoot out. The collision between Allen's timid screen persona and mortal danger is full of comic potential. The new film might be re-titled Death and the Nebbish.

Except this time the harried intellectual is played not by Allen (who doesn't appear) but by the versatile John Cusack. Cusack's David Shayne is a struggling 1920s playwright, living in a New York that is roaring for everyone but himself. He talks grandly but lives in poverty, hanging out in Greenwich Village bars with a crowd of writers who spend more time talking about art than creating it. Shayne's plays are the sort of fare, both worthy and pretentious, that Broadway producers run a mile from. That is until a Mr Big (Joe Viterelli) puts money behind Shayne's new play to set up a starring vehicle for his dumb chorus girl of a mistress (Jennifer Tilly). This Mr Big is about as wide as he is tall and his firm is the firm. He orders a bodyguard, Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), to protect his girl at rehearsals. Soon Cheech decides that what the floozie needs most protection from is her lines. He insinuates his own ideas and speeches into the play, substituting street savvy for high-flown blather.

Transcribing the comic mayhem Allen and his co-writer Douglas McGrath create is like trying to catch bullets on the wing - and may kill off the comedy as brutally as Cheech dispenses with his enemies. Many of the devices are time-honoured, even crude, staples of farce, but their execution is exquisite. Allen breathes new life into stock scenes such as the one when a lover has to hide in a cupboard - Jim Broadbent's grand British thespian ends up nervously chatting to friends on the sidewalk in his long johns. And Allen's running gags have strong enough legs to win marathons. Broadbent can't stop eating; another actor's dog won't stop yapping - unpromising stuff, but Allen times and ornaments each variation perfectly. In the past Allen's facility for gag-making has had a way of halting drama with hilarity. The glory of Bullets Over Broadway is that so much of its wit is not in one-liners but in the interplay of its two worlds, theatre and gangster, and in the grotesque caricatures of those who inhabit them. Heavy confronts luvvie, coarse straight-talk running into genteel theatrical flannel, when Cheech realises that Broadbent's expanding theatrical grandee is having an affair with his bimbo-ish charge. "Next time you go near her," Cheech menaces, "you're a dead man." "Point taken," Broadbent quivers back.

Allen is aided by top-notch performances - good actors playing superbly bad actors playing abysmally. Dianne Wiest won a deserved Oscar (though her role is hardly supporting) as Shayne's vampish leading lady, a flutteringly theatrical old dame ("I never play frumps or virgins"), who gets high on the froth and sentimentality of Broadway. Her priorities are hogging the limelight and bedding the director. Broadbent is a joy too, all Brylcream and tweed, with a complacent fog-horn of an upper-class voice. You know he is wearing spats even before the camera drops to his feet. Tilly tattles airheadedly, and Palminteri never allows his hood to turn too aesthetic, always putting thuggery before fanciness. If Cusack sometimes looks to be doing an Allen impersonation at least he doesn't unbalance the movie as the man himself might have.

I don't want to spoil the fun, but the movie also tosses around some interesting ideas. Shayne and his friends chew the cud, like characters out of Warren Beatty's Reds, over the meaning of art, while the movie itself offers its own blithe and charming analysis. It is on the side of Cheech, who as an artist represents the instinctive and the authentic as opposed to Shayne's deliberation and erudition - even though Cheech's play sounds almost as bad as Shayne's. The movie's own dialogue, which has the tang and spit of the street, bears out this plea for dramatic realism. In presenting a murderer as an artist, Allen also opens up the thorny old issue of the relevance of the artist's personality to a work of art. You may feel that Allen is making a self-interested argument for the artist's right to irresponsibility.

Better, though, to sit back and enjoy. Not the least of the movie's pleasures is its lavish recreation of 1920s New York. Art Deco interiors gleam with satin wall- paper, gilded furniture and ubiquitous mirrors - a world of glimmering surfaces and champagne glasses. Carlo di Palma's photography has a golden glow. So does the whole film.

The eponymous hero of Fresh (18) is young, black and gifted at drugs- running. The 12-year-old Fresh (Sean Nelson) learns his trade on New York's meanest streets, ferrying crack in his school satchel - an unsentimental education. To the barons who deal with him his blank face suggests fear. But in fact it masks calculation. Educated in the wiles of the chessboard by one of the black masters who play in Washington Square (Samuel L Jackson), Fresh schemes for a fresh start - for himself and his exploited junkie sister. He applies chess's lessons of deceit and entrapment to life. The movie unflinchingly portrays the hell of the drugs world, but it also gives a hint of hope, a possibility of escape. More complex than anything produced by John Singleton or the Hughes brothers, and just as shocking, it's the new black cinema's most impressive work so far.

Boys on the Side (15) is a sassy, self-confident mix of broad comedy and tear-jerking melodrama of the sort that only Hollywood has the chutzpah to attempt. It's about the burgeoning friendship between three female outsiders: a lesbian (Whoopi Goldberg), an Aids sufferer (Mary-Louise Parker) and a wild girl (Drew Barrymore) who has got pregnant by her boyfriend and has accidentally killed him in a fight. It's shameless stuff, but bold in the way it lurches between gags and grief. By the end the film has drawn death's sting. Parker (who shines briefly as John Cusack's girlfriend in Bullets Over Broadway) has a gawky dignity that is a cover for deep pain. She may be a star in the making. I saw the movie at the National Film Theatre, where the audience found it more amusing than I did. I had not realised there were so many people in the country who found Whoopi Goldberg funny.

Masochists can decide whether they'd rather be tortured by ponderous Peruvian literary adaptation, in Sin Compasin (15), a contemporary Crime and Punishment; or by insipid Irish girly rites of passage, in Circle of Friends (15), an unaccountable American hit.

Just room to recommend A Personal Journey Through American Movies With Martin Scorsese, a 224-minute documentary, commissioned by the BFI, which plays at the National Film Theatre next Saturday, and then airs over three weeks, from next Sunday, on Channel 4. Scorsese unearths many underrated gems as well as covering familiar ground. Sadly, the accompanying NFT season consists of only three films. Scorsese is one of 18 film-makers asked to make a film about their national cinema. So far I have seen Sam Neill's sparky essay on New Zealand, and Stephen Frears on Britain, a quirky masterpiece.

Cinema details: Review, page 98.