Some people will love Hollywood Ending. To be one of those people, you have to overlook how slight a film Woody Allen has delivered, you have to ignore how out of touch with our world Allen is, and you have to deny that Hollywood Ending only shines relative to the two Allen films that preceded it, together representing the first three-film slide in his three-decades-plus directorial career.
Val Waxman (Allen), an Oscar-winning director with a sagging reputation, now lives paycheck to paycheck making TV commercials, cohabiting with the intellectually unchallenging Lori (Debra Messing, whose performance faintly echoes Mira Sorvino's in Mighty Aphrodite). Suddenly and unbelievably, Val's ex-wife, Ellie (Tea Leoni), and her studio exec fiancé, Hal (Treat Williams), offer Val a $60 million project. Then comes the hook, which takes its sweet time arriving despite being the focus of all previews for this film: Val continues to direct the film even though he becomes psychosomatically blind.
Allen ranks among the greatest slapstick artists in film history, but, as welcome as his recent return to physical comedy has been, it's often painful seeing sight gags staged so arthritically. Furthermore, many of the bigger laughs in this film come accompanied by pangs of guilt. Barney Cheng, as the translator for Val's Chinese cinematographer, delivers his lines brilliantly, even as they sound dangerously like utterances of one of Charlie Chan's No. 1 sons. Mark Webber, playing Val's estranged son (a performer named Scumbag X who eats vermin on stage), is surprisingly charming in a role clearly written with an intense ignorance of and hatred for contemporary youth culture.
Hollywood Ending has much in common with David Mamet's recent State and Main. Both films are dark comedies from gifted satirists well positioned to deliver a knockout punch to the Hollywood system, yet they incessantly content themselves with puny little jabs that mostly fail to connect with their targets. Taken together with his lamentable last two films, Small Time Crooks and Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending finds Allen seemingly stuck on a time-marking track comparable to the waning years of the late, great Billy Wilder, years that produced Avanti! and Buddy Buddy--flat films whose minor charms come in their failed attempts to re-create past triumphs.