Bullets over Broadway (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Sure as the turning of the leaves, this time of the year, fresh with the scent of Oscars to come, brings the release of a new Woody Allen motion picture. Two years ago, his Fall contribution was Husbands and Wives. Last year, it was Manhattan Murder Mystery. This year, the entry is something called Bullets Over Broadway, which represents Allen's first stint behind the camera without going in front of it since 1990 (Alice).

It's odd how the director's personal life manages to intrude itself into his films. Throughout his career, this has been the case, and circumstances haven't changed with Bullets Over Broadway. The greatest evidence for this comes in a theme that could have been taken right out of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment: what, if any, ethical constraints bind the conduct and conscience of a true artist? Or, to use Allen's own words: does a man possessed of true artistic genius create "his own moral universe"?

Bullets Over Broadway is the most insightful and deliciously droll look at show business since Robert Altman skewered Hollywood in 1992's The Player. Covering much the same ground as Naked in New York, albeit in a different era (the 1920s) and with much greater success, Bullets Over Broadway questions what real art is. Just because a play is compromised, does that make it a less valid expression of ideas? And is it possible to get anything made without giving in on some element of artistic integrity? Allen toys with those issues, taking playful jabs at his audience, himself, and the entertainment industry as a whole.

David Shayne (John Cusack as Allen's alter-ego) is a playwright with a brilliant script that no one wants to produce. Since it's "art", the belief is that it's destined for obscurity. ("If the common people don't understand your work, you're a genius.") Then, along comes a gangster (Joe Viterelli) looking for a role for his manifestly untalented actress girlfriend Olive (Jennifer Tilly). For the price of including her in the play, David can have all the money he needs. Despite a pricking conscience and the warnings of his girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker), he agrees.

To round out the cast, David chooses as his leading lady Helen "Don't Speak" Sinclair (a wonderfully over-the-top Dianne Wiest), a star with an ego to match her mammoth reputation, and as his leading man, British thespian Warner Purcell (the always-reliable Jim Broadbent), a food addict who falls off the dieting wagon whenever he gets nervous.

Despite noteworthy performances by Cusack, Wiest, and Broadbent, the standout is Chazz Palminteri's Cheech, a hard-bitten wise guy assigned the duty of chaperoning Olive. Palminteri proves that his performance in A Bronx Tale was no fluke. This is an actor capable of astonishing breadth and depth, who can effortlessly switch back and forth from comedy to drama. In Jennifer Tilly, Allen has found the perfect actress to play the helium-voiced, totally untalented Olive. It's almost frightening how good Tilly is in this role. Other than perhaps Melanie Griffith, it's difficult to conceive of anyone doing as credible a job. Also making appearances are Tracey Ullman, Harvey Fierstein, Rob Reiner (who has all the best lines), Joe Viterelli, Jack Warden, and Mary-Louise Parker (whose part here echoes that from Naked in New York, where she also was the playwright's girlfriend).

With its legitimate issues couched in laughter, Bullets Over Broadway is a delight to experience. Solid performances, a clever script (which contains at least one truly outrageous twist), and a jaunty soundtrack of '20s songs keep this movie a notch above many of Allen's recent films. And good Woody Allen is always a sure bet for entertainment.

Bullets over Broadway (United States, 1994)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 1994-10-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1