A Hollywood Ending

Monica LaBelle

Last week I joined journalists at the press junket for Woody Allen’s latest film, Hollywood Ending, in New York City. After spending a DreamWorks Studios-sponsored night in the Drake Hotel on 5th Ave, I was surrounded by fellow film critics from Ohio to Paris as they leaned over each other’s water bottles to speculate about the message behind the latest offering from the little man. ‘He’s saying he thinks he could direct a movie blind and the French would still love it! It parallels his love life!’ they asserted to each other in hushed tones.

When you’re a gossipy film critic, it’s hard not to interpret Hollywood Ending as Allen’s confession to critics and fans.

It’s about a once-successful director, Val (Woody Allen), who’s so hard-up for work that his last hope is to direct a film produced by his ex-wife (Tea Leoni) and her new fiancé (Treat Williams). The pressure gets to the failing director and he goes psychosomatically blind during the filming. But he keeps directing the film.

As soon as Woody Allen’s character lost his vision I thought, “Hmm. A simple pratfall. This is the second signal that this will be a crappy movie.” My first inclination that the movie would be a stinker was that DreamWorks invited me to this all-expenses paid press junket. From my experience, free treats from publicity folk means the movie will be a bomb.

But luckily for me and the spend-happy folks at DreamWorks, the director-goes-blind plot was not the central comedic point of the film.

The junket I attended consisted of three groups of print journalists who slobbered and kissed up to Woody Allen’s costars, Debra Messing, Treat Williams, Tea Leoni, Mark Rydell and George Hamilton. I was more interested in the brains behind the film – the shrunken little old man who, at 63, has the build of a lanky, stooped 12-year-old boy and hair that is alarmingly whiter than it appears to be on the screen. And, of course, his retro-framed glasses.

Once Allen sat down with us to talk about Hollywood Ending, he turned the blood-thirsty writers into fawning fans with his characteristic wide-eyed, palms-up gestures and stuttering explanations for his ideas. He said he just thought psychosomatic blindness would be funny – and even funnier if it happened to a director forced to make a film with his ex-wife because he had a lousy career.

Allen’s career, by comaparison, is quite healthy. He attributes the ongoing success of his movies to him being “like a low-grade virus they [Hollywood] can’t stamp out.”

But like the director he plays in his movie, Allen doesn’t know which demographic watches his films (over the past 40 years, he has written, directed and/or acted in over 45 films). The marketing whiz-bangs of celluloid can never identify his fans.

“I feel my films are accessible. They’re not all great,” Allen says of his film tenure.

“Making films is a loafer’s job,” says Allen.

Maybe it’s easy for him to say this because of what actors call his “intuitive” approach to directing.

A very pregnant Tea Leoni said that when shooting a film, Allen is “trusting that you’ve at least done your homework.” There were no rehearsals for the film, and before the shooting, Leoni said she had only talked to Allen once – to ask him whether there was a soundtrack for Allen’s 1973 film, Sleeper.

“He has more faith in you than you do in yourself,” Leoni said. “He’d say, ‘If you wouldn’t do that, then don’t.'” Once the scene was shot, Leoni says Allen would ask, “Did you believe it? Do you think they’ll believe it? Ok, let’s go on.”

The result is a film that has layers of comedy, like when George Hamilton’s California-rooted character gets progressively tanner throughout the film.

The Allen-ish California-vs.-New York theme in Hollywood Ending plays out like a resolved Annie Hall, in which the once-adored girlfriend is accused of selling out to the herbs and flakes of the West Coast.

Another part of the ending is that Val’s movie turns out to be a dog of a final product that Americans pan and the French laud. Coincidentally, Hollywood Ending is the opening film of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Allen says that he’s opening the festival “strictly out of affection,” because the French asked him to do it.

Hollywood Ending will be a good fix for any Woody Allen fan, and just a fine, funny film for those who aren’t annoyed by the neurotic genius.

Just remember that Hollywood Ending is about a director named, Val – it’s not about Allen.

“I’m not that crazy,” he says of his character. Allen says if he had psychosomatic blindness, he wouldn’t direct. “I’d be home whining, complaining and making life miserable for everyone.”

 

Hollywood Ending opens this Friday.