Woody Allen does the treadmill every day, and it seems to be working. Not only is the 66-year-old director still trim, but his insular collection of themes keeps him firmly in one place. Unfortunately, that one place has lost its luster since 1997's Deconstructing Harry or, arguably, earlier. Even Woody's fans (and I count myself as one) will be hard-pressed to praise Hollywood Ending as a return to form.
This is one of Woody's semi-sunny (or should I say, overcast?) comedies and, true to form, he stars in it. Forget thinly-veiled; this time, it's transparent, as Allen plays Val Waxman, a once-successful Hollywood director in a career slowdown. His failure is, naturally, comically exaggerated, as is Allen's sex appeal. Here, he turns the heads of both Debra Messing, who plays a bubbly wannabe actress, and the classy Téa Leoni, who plays the executive (and ex-wife) willing to given Allen another shot. Treat Williams plays her fiancée, the studio boss of Galaxie Pictures (an apparent goof on failed studio and former Allen partner Orion Pictures). After much kvetching on both sides, Waxman's agent (played by director Mark Rydell) scores him "a tenth of a point after quadruple break-even," the film's best zinger of Hollywood's absurd culture. Disaster ensues when the director loses his vision...literally.
Most of the rest of Allen's one-liners here are uncharacteristically obvious, and he indulges a dead-end subplot involving his punk-styled son as an excuse for the film's driving conceit (and perhaps--irony of ironies--in a bid for a wider demographic). Too many redundant beats result in a hesitant pace, though Allen is still capable of magic, like a long-take exercise in which Allen and Leoni try in vain to be professional and a bit of brilliant misdirection built around a major pratfall. Unfortunately, Allen undermines his blind routine (and distracts us from the humor) by never looking in the direction of the people around him.
The cast is good enough, but logy by Allen standards. Leoni is a standout, but she's given too little with which to work. Williams at least gets to deliver a speech underlining Allen's critique of the biz's 21st Century foxiness. Best among the supporting cast is newcomer Barney Cheng as an interpreter on the set who must do double duty. George Hamilton continues his second career of self-parody as a studio watchdog, and Allen himself is, though faded, still his amusing self.
On the way out of the film, one audience member commented, "Too much Woody Allen." But Allen is always the star of the show, even offscreen, and even a lesser effort such as this has a clever premise and an even more clever title. Beside the self-reference to a well-made comedy plot, Allen tells us in no uncertain terms that Hollywood--as a culture and even as a business--is heading to a cataclysm of Holy Roman Empire proportions.