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Blind Ambition 

In his new film, Woody Allen plays a sight-challenged director who gets by with a little help from his friends

In 1969, reviewing Topaz, one of Hitchcock's last movies, the fine English novelist Penelope Mortimer, moonlighting as a film critic, referred to the veteran director as a "promising newcomer." This remains one of the most hilarious and notorious boners in the history of movie criticism, laying bare the embarrassing fact that this alleged expert on cinema was blithely ignorant of the nearly 50-year career of one of the major figures in film history.

What's often lost sight of in accounts of this gaffe, though, is the fact that Mortimer liked the movie, while her better educated colleagues hated it. It wasn't what they wanted from Hitchcock, and they knew his tricks too well. But they were wrong, and Mortimer was right. Topaz is a fine movie, crisp and strange and weirdly elegant. Mortimer could see this, because she didn't know Hitchcock. Like a little knowledge, too much knowledge, it seems, can be a dangerous thing.

Watching Hollywood Ending, Woody Allen's cheerful new comedy, I wondered what critics--who've hated it--would think of it without knowledge of the nearly four decades of Allen's work that this movie so self-consciously culminates. With that knowledge, I still thought the film was wonderful in its modest and very familiar way.

It's the tale of a neurotic director (Allen, of course), whose ex-wife (Téa Leoni) prods her philistine-producer fiancé (Treat Williams) to hire her ex-husband to direct a gritty New York story. Once hired, the director instantly goes psychosomatically blind, and the rest of the movie concerns the slapstick efforts of those who care about him, principally Leoni and his agent (Mark Rydell), to conceal his condition from the bosses.

Inadvertently and unapologetically--the lack of apology is one of the film's most striking features, and the key to its happy, breezy tone--the movie showcases every one of the characteristics for which Allen's critics have lambasted him since well before they'd seized upon their expedient moral justifications for doing so. In the movie, as perhaps in life, Woody Allen is old. His skin is wrinkled. He clings to the trademark oversized horn-rimmed glasses he's sported for decades now perhaps to hide--as a brief unshielded glimpse of his face shows--unbecoming bags drooping under his eyes. And it's hard to escape the impression that he seeks to upstage his cast, sometimes by selecting undistinguished players. (Though here, unforgivably, he casts the great Marian Seldes and then wastes her profligately.)

Allen also continues to insist, in his dotage, on casting himself opposite an array of beautiful young women, whom he portrays as desiring him, and whom he then, having established this desire in all its unsavory improbability, proceeds to kiss at length on the screen, before our disbelieving eyes. It's nearly inconceivable that he has not been informed of the irrevocable repugnance of such scenes. But it is conceivable that he thinks he might still change something in our conceptions of the relation of age to sexuality. Certainly, over many years, he changed things in our senses of what attractions meant, and of how those not traditionally held to be attractive could still be, and quite defiantly really were, sexual.

The ongoing narcissism of Allen's persona will escape the attentions of no viewer of this film, of course--as usual, he refers to it himself. I've never seen it discussed seriously, though, in relation to the jubilant self-hatred it accompanies, nor in relation to the compulsive self-consciousness of his unique and definitive heterosexuality. (I've always been struck, for instance, by his sense of heterosexuality as a dimension or extension of friendship, and vice versa.) Those who chastise him so routinely these days consider themselves warranted by his power, but neurosis and vulnerability remain the themes of his work and the sources of his comedy, and it would take 30 of his films--nearly as many as he's made--to equal the budget of one Pearl Harbor.

The comedy of Hollywood Ending gently satirizes the philistinism of modern American movies, but this gentleness does not equal compromise. It suggests now nothing more nor less than the mellowing of an old man who wants to remain in touch and stay in the game. This film is, technically and structurally, as sharp as the films of anyone now working in American movies. We would be able to see this more plainly, I think, if we were not gazing, with some apparent residual hostility, through the cluttered field of Allen's whole career. But the movie itself is unassuming in its simplicity, and, though it's as long as any movie he's ever made, gossamer, evanescent, gone before you know it. It's probably as close as Woody Allen will ever come to confronting his own blindnesses (excepting Deconstructing Harry), yet it remains soft, pliable, pleasant and airy, the work of an aging director who has no interest in hiding his age or in dealing with other peoples' attitudes toward it.

The crafty plotting, the silken, glimmery sheen of the style, the complex formal sense of visual composition, the wry assurance of the overall sensibility, the enforced coherence of the yeoman ensemble: As the latest addition to the oeuvre of an Old Master, it's yesterday's news.

As the work of a promising newcomer, however, it could be a breakthrough. EndBlock

  • In his new film, Woody Allen plays a sight-challenged director who gets by with a little help from his friends.

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