While DVD has allowed me to catch up on classic Woody Allen comedies and dramas of the 70's and 80's that I've missed, I've been largely dissapointed with the director's most recent efforts, especially "Curse of the Jade Scorpion". While "Scorpion" had a decent story, Allen didn't seem to have any chemistry with Helen Hunt, a talented actress who nonetheless seemed wrong for the role.
Allen's "Hollywood Ending" isn't flawless, but it's easily the funniest and most entertaining picture I've seen from the director in several years. Allen knows the subject - filmmaking - and is able to bring most of it full-circle back to his own career. The writer/director/actor plays Val Waxman, a director past his prime who is now shooting commericals up in the snowy wilds of Canada. Upon arrival back in New York, his girlfriend Lori (Debra Messing) presents him with a script that just arrived. He needs to do another movie, but this one has some definite baggage associated with it: it's being produced by his ex-wife, Ellie (Tea Leoni), who has recently broken up with Val to see a studio exec (Treat Williams).
As the director prepares for filming of "the City That Never Sleeps", he develops psychosomatical blindness. It sounds like a rather thin joke to stretch out for most of a nearly two-hour movie but, surprisingly, Allen makes the most out of it - and then some. While anyone would have told, Val isn't going to set foot on another movie set if he fails here, so his Agent, Al (Mark Rydell) tells him it would be best to push on. The two settle on the translator for the Chinese cinematographer to help him out day-to-day; the only problem is that the translator knows nothing about film. While there are a lot of jokes that a general audience will likely find funny, there are a few in-jokes like the cinematographer (Allen has rarely - if ever - hired an American cinematographer. Zhao Fei, for example, was Allen's cinematographer on "Curse", "Small Time Crooks" and "Sweet and Lowdown".)
This is one of the few recent Allen films where not only are there hardly any jokes that I felt fell flat, but the film itself seems to be set-up for rapid-fire delivery of laughs. I don't think Allen has ever been this energetic as an actor; he seems marvelously energized by the material, throwing himself into the physical comedy and really selling the jokes with more intensity than I've seen in years.
He's also got a pair of female leads who are up to the task. Messing, who has mastered her wide-eyed comedic energy and boasts wonderful delivery and timing, is very funny as Val's dim girlfriend. Leoni plays it pretty straight-forward, but she really holds her own against Allen's nervousness. There's a fantastic scene early on where Allen alternates between yelling at her for going with Hal and discussing "his vision" for the film. It's silly and could have flopped if handled wrongly, but Allen's timing is perfection and the joke gradually opens up to the rest of the bar.
Some of the subplots are brought up and never finished (such as an actress in the film(Tiffany Thiessen) hitting on Allen's director when he's blind), but their up-in-the-air status isn't really that much of a distraction. I liked the ending, which brought most of the film's plot to a logical and very funny conclusion. "Hollywood Ending" isn't going to be remembered as Allen's finest hour, but I have to say it's the funniest and one of the most entertaining films I've seen in 2002. It's also easily my favorite Allen film since the early 90's.