While it is getting harder and harder to indulge an aging Woody Allen's enduring fantasy of beautiful young women falling in love with him in his movies, the man's comedy instincts are as sharp as ever in "Hollywood Ending."
The sophisticated screwball jaunt stars Allen as washed-up movie director Val Waxman, whose hypochondria reaches new extremes when he's rescued from deodorant commercial hell by his producer ex-wife (Tea Leoni) and given one last shot by making a $60 million blockbuster. Panicked at the prospect of making or breaking his career -- not to mention working for his ex and the Hollywood greaseball she left him for -- Val goes psychosomatically blind.
Rather than quit the picture and doom himself to showbiz purgatory, he decides he just won't let on. He'll wing it and hope his cast and crew see his apparent ineptitude as visionary eccentricity.
The movie, of course, becomes a runaway disaster. But the movie is just a framework around which Allen builds his witty, quip- and character-driven industry parody.
His splendid cast of completely natural yet enjoyably absurd players includes Treat Williams as Leoni's macho studio-head husband and Mark Rydell as Val's agent and the only person in on his secret -- at first anyway. George Hamilton plays a studio schmoozer who calls Val "garbage" behind his back, then adds matter-of-factly "But I don't mean that as an insult." Former fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi -- a background fixture in three of Allen's last four films -- makes an appearance as an uppity set decorator who thinks New York City has every location he needs for Val's noir thriller, "except I'll have to build Times Square, Harlem and the Empire State Building." And curvaceous, foxy Tiffani Thiessen (formerly of "90210" and "Saved By the Bell") has a small ring-a-ding-ding role as an actress who throws herself at Val, not realizing he can't tell she's half-naked.
But the movie's major scene-stealer is Debra Messing ("Will and Grace"), who plays Val's wind-up doll girlfriend. As hilariously ditzy-yet-endearing as Mira Sorvino was in Allen's "Mighty Aphrodite," she stumbles through scenes in five-inch heels and ankle weights (she's fitness-obsessed), chews bubblegum with her mouth open, and upon hearing Val is breaking up with her shrugs, rolls a finger around her belly button absentmindedly and chirps "But I'm still in the movie, right?"
Leoni is equally good in the less showy, standard Woody Allen straight roll as the woman eternally frustrated by his nervous, insecure antics but still a little in love with him.
With its plot driven by a nonsense ailment, "Hollywood Ending" is reminiscent of the funniest segment in Allen's great 1997 dark comedy "Deconstructing Harry," which co-starred Robin Williams as an actor whose concentration is so shot he becomes literally out of focus. The concept of Val's blindness moves the story along nicely, only stumbling a little on the fact that Allen's concept of comedy blindness is just to stare off in whatever direction the sound of someone's voice isn't coming from.
Yes, you do have to get past the ridiculous notion that a 30-something beauty like Tea Leoni would genuinely fall for a tense, neurotic, homely, diminutive 67-year-old. (Messing's and Thiessen's characters have an excuse -- they're bimbos motivated by career advancement.) But ever since his very first screenplay in 1965 (when he was tense, neurotic, homely, diminutive and 30), Allen has been writing himself into unlikely relationships with beautiful co-stars. If you can't get past that, you shouldn't be going to a Woody Allen movie in the first place.
If you can get past it, "Hollywood Ending" is a prime cut of anecdotal Allen satire.