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Nebbish in Love



Woody Allen is his own worst enemy. In person he's nothing like the whimpering, nervous characters he plays in his films. Rather than rumpled and fidgety, he's well groomed and composed. Unlike so many Hollywood personalities, he actually knows how to listen. In an interview, rather than impatiently forcing a stock response onto an interrupted question, he composes careful answers in complete sentences grouped into whole paragraphs. When I interviewed him several years ago, he observed with resignation rather than whining that the public too easily presumes his own personality to be that of the characters he portrays, characters he convincingly maintains are gross exaggerations of his own worst traits. But most people, even those who admire his work, don't have the opportunity to observe him up close and personal. So the presumption sticks.

And here he comes again in his current Hollywood Ending where he plays a neurotic film director dismissed in America but revered in France, a man estranged from a child and still in love with the wife who dumped him. I won't even bother pointing out the parallels. I will say that it is a measure of Allen's courage as an artist that he's willing to tolerate being misunderstood in order to mine the nuggets of his own life. I do believe him, though, that his own life is merely raw material whereas the finished product of his films, often insightful, usually funny, is something entirely made, not something merely transcribed.

Hollywood Ending is the story of Val Waxman (Allen), a filmmaker on the professional skids. A decade ago Val was an Oscar-winning American director with a widespread reputation for cinematic artistry. Even at the top of his career, however, Val was viewed as "difficult" by studio executives. He was demanding, secretive, and paranoid that "the suits" were out to compromise his work. Then one box office failure followed another, and Val found himself off the A-list of Hollywood directors. Today he's lucky to get work making commercials. He's facing financial ruin, but seems temperamentally incapable of righting the listing ship of his own life.

Much of Val's malaise would seem to stem from the dissolution of his second marriage. He's simply never gotten over his beautiful, much-younger second wife, Ellie (Téa Leoni), who left him for exorbitantly successful studio chief Hal Yeager (Treat Williams), a handsome, virile, charismatic man much closer to her own age. The age factor aside, this is romantic territory Allen has visited previously, most notably in one of his masterworks, Annie Hall, which was forthrightly based on Allen's own relationship with Diane Keaton who starred as Annie Hall's title character. The changes Allen has wrought from life to fiction are fascinating. After she and Allen broke up, Diane Keaton ended up with Warren Beatty, at the time one of Hollywood's most powerful filmmakers and handsome leading men.

But in Annie Hall, Annie leaves Allen's Alvy Singer for a slimy record producer played by Paul Simon, dressed and directed to portray his character as notably unattractive. In that film, Allen clearly wanted to focus on Annie's ambitions as a singer, wanted to sidestep the easy analysis that Annie leaves Alvy for a better looking guy. But with Ellie and Val in Hollywood Ending, that's exactly what does happen. In both films Allen's character has plenty of romantic substitutes, a series of sexy but humorless bedmates for Alvy in Annie Hall and in Hollywood Ending a live-in girlfriend, Lori Fox (Debra Messing), who is even younger than Ellie. In neither film, of course, do the substitutes live up to the original. In both, soul prevails over sex.

The plot in the current film spins from Ellie's determination to help salvage Val's career. Ellie has become an influential producer at Hal's studio, and through just plain stubbornness she manages to convince her husband to let Val direct a father-and-son story set on the gritty streets of Manhattan. Like Alvy, Val is Caliphobic, a film artist seen as a New York master and a neophyte everywhere else. Val accepts the job, not without a lot of griping about Ellie's leaving him, and promptly proceeds to develop hysterical blindness. Beethoven was deaf when he composed his greatest works. Can a sightless film director pull a comparable trick?

Hollywood Ending so closely revisits the emotional and autobiographical terrain of Annie Hall that it opens Allen to the charge of repeating himself, an accusation of which he's guilty despite the conclusion of the new picture that is revealed in its title. Devotees of Annie Hall will recall Allen's mockery of the Hollywood ending in Alvy's shrugged comment about his own first play. Still, Allen continues to submit with effective earnestness his belief that human beings need and can learn from the fictions they create and apprehend. And lest I wrongly sell this picture short, it's Allen's funniest since Mighty Aphrodite. I laughed often, loud and hard.

Blinded by the light: Director Val Waxman (Woody Allen) works with his ex-wife Ellie (Ta Leoni ) and current girlfriend Lori (Debra Messing) in Hollywood Ending.
  • Blinded by the light: Director Val Waxman (Woody Allen) works with his ex-wife Ellie (Ta Leoni ) and current girlfriend Lori (Debra Messing) in Hollywood Ending.

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