Hollywood Ending is a complete non-event of a movie. A lifeless experience that exists at the exact mid-point between good and bad. It reminded me, strangely enough, of Brad Pitt talking about blending in in Ocean’s Eleven: “be specific but not memorable, be funny but don’t make him laugh. He’s got to like you then forget you the moment you’ve left his side.” This movie follows that advice. Characters are introduced, people talk, events unfold, but as soon as Hollywood Ending is over, it feels like it never existed.
With all his movies — good and bad — Woody Allen tends to wear his intentions on his sleeve, but it’s hard to tell what exactly he’s going for with Hollywood Ending. It advertises itself as a silly comedy in the vein of Small Time Crooks, but it goes for long stretches of time without any jokes. Sometimes it seems to take its story very seriously, and other times it’s willfully, deliberately preposterous. It’s as if Allen sat down to write a movie without deciding beforehand what kind of movie he wanted to make.
The movie centers on film director Val Waxman (Allen), who’s an Oscar-winner and former big-shot, but has fallen into disservice and is now forced to do demeaning projects like deodorant commercials. He lives with Lori, his ditzy girlfriend (Debra Messing).
Right away the movie hits us with jarring tonal confusion. Val is shooting a commercial in Canada, and it shows him in the middle of a white-out blizzard, complaining about man-eating moose. It’s filled with all kinds of oversights and exaggerations (see the pictures below) which would be fine in a wacky comedy, but nothing else feels wacky about the sequence. Amidst all the silly details, Allen and Messing talk just like they would have in Hannah and her Sisters. Hollywood Ending is constantly inspiring the question: “what the hell is going on here?”
Elsewhere, Val gets a potential comeback opportunity when his ex-wife Ellie (Téa Leoni) writes a promising screenplay for her boyfriend/producer Hal (Treat Williams). Described as a director “with New York in his bones,” Ellie insists that Val is the right man to direct her film (which, by the way, is a 1940s detective story that sounds a lot like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion).
As you probably already know, Val goes psychosomatically blind once the movie starts shooting, but tries to finish it anyway. This is billed as the movie’s big comic twist, but it doesn’t happen until over 45 minutes in. In the ‘70s, Allen’s movies were half-way done by the 0:45 mark and the central premise was established in the first ten minutes. Hollywood Ending, though, is a rare Allen film to run nearly two hours, so it has a lot of time to kill.
The time leading up to his blindness is divided between lengthy, dull conversations and looks at the film-within-the-film’s pre-production. The former is exemplified in a scene in which Ellie and Val meet in a restaurant to talk about both the movie and their divorce. A lot in said over the course of the scene’s ten minutes, but little of it is interesting and almost none of it is funny. In The Curse of The Jade Scorpion, Allen and Helen Hunt would have equally humorless conversations, but at least then you could detect faint hints of the tension and humor he was going for. This time it just seems like everyone’s stalling for time. At one point, Val (Allen) turns to a guest at another table and starts complaining about his divorce, something that’s not very funny nor is it something people generally do.
Hollywood Ending’s look at movie-making seems promising at first, but quickly succumbs to the same perplexing lack of believability. Few people know more about movie-making than Woody Allen, but the film’s portrayal of his craft is cartoonishly unrealistic. The entire premise, for example, is totally absurd. Within minutes it would be obvious to any remotely cognizant human being that there is something wrong with Val’s vision, but somehow no one figures it out.
The biggest early laugh comes courtesy of Isaac Mizrahi who plays an over-eager production designer who wants to re-create all of New York’s landmarks (including the Empire State Building) on indoor sets. The movie’s second-funniest character is Barry (Barney Cheng), a grad student with no interest in movies who’s originally hired as a translator, but quickly forced to act as Val’s eyes (after he’s inadvertently let in on the scam). Sadly though, both of these characters are swiftly dumped from the film just as they start to get funny.
Once Val goes blind, the movie admittedly picks up. Hollywood Ending is not without laughs, but it’s funny in the gentlest, tamest, safest way possible. There are a lot of moments in which Val falls down, walks into walls, and talks to someone without realizing who they are. How funny this is is a matter of opinion, I suppose, but beyond the original idea, which is admittedly pretty clever, few would argue that any of the jokes in Hollywood Ending are original or insightful.
Blindness was used as a powerful metaphor in Crimes and Misdemeanors, but it has no dramatic or symbolic weight in Hollywood Ending. Any hopes of artistic meaning are dashed when it’s abruptly explained that he’s gone blind because of his strained relationship with his son. This is a hacky plot twist that nearly rivals the handy Explanation Man from The Curse of the Jade Scorpion — 90 minutes into the movie and we didn’t even know he had a son, and now all of a sudden, that’s actually what the movie’s supposedly about. The Deus Ex Machina of Jade Scorpion was lazy, but Val’s blindness in Hollywood Ending didn’t need an explanation — which makes this development pointless, in addition to also being lazy.
The laziness continues with Woody Allen’s characterizations, which would embarrass a first-time filmmaker, to say nothing of a man in his fourth decade of making movies. As with Deconstructing Harry and Alice, we have a protagonist (Val) that we’re supposed to root for although we’re given no reason to do so. There’s a certain set of base characteristics that Woody Allen has in all his movies — neurotic, flustered, snobby — and as far as I can tell, Val Waxman doesn’t have a single distinguishing trait beyond this baseline. There is, in other words, nothing unique or interesting about him other than the fact that he’s Woody Allen.
And then there’s Hal (Treat Williams), Ellie’s new boyfriend, who we’re supposed to accept as the phony, blood-sucking Hollywood bad-guy. I was looking forward to some more of the anti-commercial show-business vitriol of Stardust Memories, Annie Hall or even Celebrity, but Hal just sort of comes across as a nice, normal guy. Val disparagingly says of him, “he’s made a number of very profitable films, and that tells you all you need to know about him.” Well, actually, it doesn’t, but I guess it does to Allen. The way Hal is portrayed makes Allen look like a bitter, ugly old man. His snide dismissal of someone who makes popular movies is especially hypocritical considering it takes place in Hollywood Ending, which is probably Allen’s most accessible and artistically unambitious film yet.
In the end of the movie, Val and Ellie fall back in love, a development that makes absolutely no sense. I don’t know whether this came about because of Allen’s old-fashioned insistence that movies should have some sort of romantic angle, or whether it’s just an arrogant assumption on Allen’s part that all women will eventually fall in love with him. Ellie is an ambitious 35-year-old film producer who hates Val in the beginning, and later has to hold his hand and steady him while he stumbles around ruining her movie. Then they decide to get married.
A common criticism of Woody Allen’s movies is that all the people in them talk like Woody Allen. I’d never really noticed that before, perhaps because I’ve been distracted by quality filmmaking, but it hit me over the head with a shovel this time. Val, Val’s ex-wife, Val’s agent, Val’s producers, even Val’s punk-rocker son all talk like Woody Allen. They talk way too much about themselves, define themselves by their artistic interests, name-drop philosophers, and make self-deprecating remarks. If Allen had decided to go the Jerry Lewis/Eddie Murphy route and play all of the characters himself, the only thing he’d have to adjust would be the costume budget.
The one exception, within the primary cast, is Debra Messing. She’s stuck being yet another one of Woody Allen’s crassly dim-witted women, but she’s overtly goofy enough that it seems like she’s having fun. Messing also comes across as the person who realizes this is supposed to be a comedy. As for Leoni, Williams and the others, they may be talented, but you wouldn’t know it from Hollywood Ending.
All of the film’s problems are accentuated by its punishing pacing. Conversations drag on interminably, and jokes get explained and explained and explained. A simple fall-down gag gets what feels like ten minutes of set-up. Scene after scene starts out fresh and full of possibility and winds up like a deathly ill dog begging to be put down.
At a staggering one hour and fifty-two minutes, Hollywood Ending is Allen’s second-longest movie ever (it’s one minute shy of Celebrity). It’s 33 minutes longer than Zelig, 19 minutes longer than Annie Hall, and eight minutes longer than Crimes and Misdemeanors. All of those movies were bursting at the seams with ideas, whereas Hollywood Ending’s premise would have worked better as a short film. Allen’s filmography is in desperate need of time re-distribution.
I’m trying to avoid the pratfall of unfairly comparing Allen’s movies to his earlier films, but it’s impossible to forget how easy this used to be for him. I don’t care that Hollywood Ending isn’t as good as Annie Hall or Stardust Memories, but it bugs me that it’s not as good as Mighty Aphrodite or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex — even when faced with slim material, Allen used to be able to churn out a good movie in his sleep. Even if Hollywood Ending is blandly agreeable and occasionally funny, it’s impossible to believe he couldn’t have done better.
Along with Small Time Crooks and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending feels like the conclusion to a new unofficial trilogy, one that is the inverse of the eclectic relationship threesome of Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives. All three movies since 2000 were written at the same time, and all three have a central hook that is ingenious but demonstrably thin for feature-length. In another universe, it’s not hard to imagine Allen having three new comedy classics on his hands had he used the films’ central ideas as starting points, instead of just propping them up with filler and padding.
Hollywood Ending is simultaneously a better and worse movie than The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. It’s sporadically funny and never grating, but it lacks Jade Scorpion’s ambition and commitment. Jade Scorpion failed, but Hollywood Ending doesn’t even try.
- “I was fired. I figured that was a good enough reason to quit.”
- “For me, the nicest thing about masturbation is afterward, the cuddling time.”
- “Would you recommend this film to a friend?”
“Not unless I was friendly with Hitler.”
- After getting along so well for a while, I’m sad to report that Woody Allen and I once again disagree on his work. Allen inexplicably claims that Hollywood Ending is one of his better movies. He said the screenings and early reviews were so positive that he was sure he had a huge hit on his hands (although the way DreamWorks scaled back the scope of the release suggests that they knew better).
- Hollywood Ending was the opening film at the Cannes film festival. Allen had had many films play at Cannes, but for the first time ever, because he was so proud of his movie, Allen accompanied it to France and attended the premiere.
- Although it was released in 2002, it was clearly filmed earlier in 2001 as the World Trade Center is still visible in some shots.
- In the end of the movie, there’s a joke about how Val’s terrible movie actually does quite well in France. In an ironic twist, Hollywood Ending itself did pretty well in France, at least according to IMDb.
- More art imitating life: Val says that he only likes to use foreign cinematographers because they bring a unique texture to the film. Every cinematographer that Allen has worked with since he parted ways with Gordon Willis in 1985 — Carlos Di Palma, Sven Nykvist, Fei Zhao — has been foreign-born. Getting even more specific, Val wants to hire a certain Chinese director who has experience working in the era — Sweet and Lowdown was the first movie on which real-life Woody worked with real-life Chinese cinematographer Fei Zhao, whose most famous Chinese-language film had been set in the same time period.
- Haskell Wexler, two-time Academy Award winner and cinematographer for movies such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and In the Heat of the Night (among many others) was fired from Hollywood Ending a few weeks into production. Apparently he kept hounding Allen to re-shoot certain scenes and even tried to make script changes. He was replaced by Wedigo von Schultzendorff.
- A lot of reviews pointed out that Val should have been able to tell where people were by listening, but actually, that’s one realism base the movie did cover: it’s briefly mentioned near the beginning that he has no hearing in his left ear, which would throw off his spatial orientation.
- IMDb lists the movie’s length as 1:12, and the copy I have was that length as well. However, Wikipedia and Box Office Mojo (two less ‘official’ sources, admittedly) list the length as 1:54. Those two minutes — if they exist, in some other cut — would push Hollywood Ending past Celebrity in the extremely important “longest Woody Allen movie so far” ranking.
- Val has a brief, awkward tryst with a character played by Tiffani Thiessen, which makes this the second movie in a row to feature Woody Allen romancing a former cast member of Saved By The Bell.
- Not to dwell on the age gaps, but it’s worth noting that, in 2002, Allen’s two girlfriends in the movie — Debra Messing and Téa Leoni — had a combined age of 69. Allen was 67.