By Owen Gleiberman
Updated October 21, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

The last time Woody Allen made a candy-colored nostalgia piece set in the New York of yesteryear, it turned out to be one of his least exciting films-the craftsmanly but drab Radio Days (1987). So it’s understandable if audiences approach Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway (Miramax, R) with trepidation. At a glance, everything about this sumptuously designed movie, from its Tin Pan Alley title to its Damon Runyon gangsters to its inevitable soundtrack of golden oldies (”Let’s Misbehave,” ”Toot, Toot, Tootsie! [Good-Bye]”), smacks of cobwebby quaintness. For a while, even the story seems quaint: It centers on an idealistic bohemian playwright of the 1920s, the earnest, bespectacled David Shayne (John Cusack), who mounts one of his plays with financial backing from a Mob boss named Nick (Joe Viterelli). The catch is that he’s required to find a part for the gangster’s moll, a dumb-as-they-come bimbo flapper (Jennifer Tilly) with a voice of tin. Yearning to stay true to his ”vision,” the playwright now faces the deadly prospect of compromise, of diluting his integrity with reality. Oh, no, I thought, not another pat allegory of Woody the tortured artist, Woody the pure! And not another cozy-empty Woody Allen confection — by now we’ve sat through more than enough of those.

Well, Bullets Over Broadway is indeed a confection, but this one has wit and sass. Cowritten by Allen and a new collaborator, Douglas McGrath, the movie, in a delightful caprice, ends up turning the tables on Allen’s honorable-nerd alter ego. As rehearsals for the play commence, David assembles a flaky crew of thespians, including Tilly’s one-dimensional Harlow knockoff, Olive Neal; the gluttonous English hambone Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent); the perky Eden Brent (Tracey Ullman), who delights in telling jokes no one quite gets; and Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), an edging-over-the-hill Broadway grande dame whose passion for martinis is surpassed only by her burgeoning affection for David. Most of the actors have ideas for changing David’s script; each wants his or her role to stand out (or, in Olive’s case, to feature fewer big words). But the one who ends up wielding the most influence on David isn’t an actor. It’s Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), the glowering, thick-lipped gangster assigned to look after Nick’s girlfriend. He couldn’t give a damn about the theater — but he knows life, and what every thuggish bone in his body tells him is that David’s play stinks.

Out of sheer boredom, Cheech begins to make suggestions, and the play improves. Suddenly, it has vibrance, passion, heart. Cheech is soon reveling in his new role as ghostwriter; it turns out there’s nothing he won’t do to protect ”his” play. Palminteri, the writer and costar of last year’s A Bronx Tale, plays Cheech as threatening, charismatic, and oddly intuitive — a bully for art. It’s a touching and spirited performance that brings a comic charge to this light-farce variation on Cyrano de Bergerac.

Yet something else gives it life as well. Nestled inside Bullets Over Broadway is Allen’s sly commentary on … the scandal. That scandal. ”An artist,” observes one character, ”creates his own moral universe.” The film’s satirical message is that David is a failure at art precisely because he’s a nice guy: He lacks the ruthlessness and ego that are the artist’s fundamental strength. Of course, that also makes the artist a brute in life. As Bullets Over Broadway progresses, Cheech, in effect, becomes the film’s monster-hero, and David, played by Cusack with sweet-spirited recessive charm, is reduced to the status of genial Joe Average. The fun of the movie lies in how much we come to like them both. Allen isn’t defending the amorality of artists (i.e., himself) so much as he is anatomizing it. He’s saying that art wants what it wants-and that when one lives that way, the heart (and maybe another body part or two) will follow.

Bullets Over Broadway isn’t always inspired. The movie takes a while to get going, and I wish all the noisy actor characters were as winning as Wiest’s delectably theatrical Helen, whose repeated cry to David — a Garbo-esque ”Don’t speak!” — is, beneath its mock-romantic hauteur, an uproariously justified plea for the prosaic young man to just shut up. Still, it’s nice to see Allen’s craftsmanship reanimated by a genuine showman’s ardor. This is one old-fashioned comedy with an up-to-the-minute sting. A-

Bullets Over Broadway

  • Movie
  • R
  • Woody Allen