Every so often, Woody Allen makes a period film. Bullets over Broadway is set in new York in the 1920s – in the worlds of gangsters and glamorous Broadway stars. Woody Allen does not actually appear in the film but it is clear that the role of David Shayne – the would-be playwright – was written with him in mind. He is full of the verbal complaining, the tics, the obsession with being artistic of the standard Woody Allen character, with the exception that he is not Jewish. John Cusack does a reasonable job in the circumstances but you wonder why the writers – Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath – did not set him a different, more rewarding challenge. He could only ever be Woody Allen-lite.
It is a common enough storyline – a mobster puts his bimbo girlfriend into a high-brow play – but given a twist that not even Damon Runyon played. Cheech, the hood assigned to look after her, turns out to have greater dramatic flair than the playwright and actually manages to save the play. In a brutal irony, he is so upset about the bimbo’s inability to play the part that he even rubs her out. It is a Runyonesque storyline but, sadly, it lacks the sting in the tail of all real Runyon stories. Jennifer Tilly, as Olive Neal the bimbo, plays her part in the time-honoured way: a mix of Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain and Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. At one point, we even catch her playing patience – surely an echo of the latter film.
The texture of the film is filled out with various side-plots. The discussions amongst Shayne’s bohemian friends about how the “artist” makes his own morality, and about how they only write or paint in order to have the pleasure of not achieving success etc, would probably have expanded if Woody Allen had appeared in the film. Apart from the bimbo, the main female role is played by Dianne Wiest: a legendary Broadway grande dame, maybe modelled on someone like Laurette Taylor or Tallulah Bankhead, whose career is on the slide and who drinks too much. Her part is, sadly, underwritten. It never really develops beyond an alcoholic egomaniac who seduces the writer in order to get him to alter her part favourably. Admittedly, Dianne Wiest plays it well: from her earlier Allen films, it would be hard to conceive that she had sufficient hauteur to play this role.
What you do notice though is the crudeness of the wit. In the scene where Wiest sets out to seduce Shayne, she orders two martinis. He thinks one is for him but, in fact, they are both for herself. The leading man in the play is played by Jim Broadbent. The way we see him compulsively eating food, storing chicken legs in his coat pockets, stealing dog treats etc, is way overdone. The first time we see Tracey Ullman as the soubrette, she cracks jokes about breast-feeding her chihuahua. It seems as if she is modelled on a scatty English comedienne such as Beatrice Lillie but this is a style of humour that grates in this context.
The music also grated. It seems as if we might have to blame Dick Hyman for playing Bix’s account of “Singin’ the Blues” under Dianne Wiest’s seduction scene – a truly crass choice because no one can compete for attention against Bix. They re-used exactly the same recording of “Let’s Misbehave” that opened Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask. But the real pity is that the writers did nothing with the dramatic situation. Having killed Olive, Cheech must know that his boss will exact vengeance – even if he does not actually suspect Cheech, he will regard him as culpably negligent. But they did nothing with this. They preferred to go out in an anodyne way by having Shayne admit he is not a real artist and decide to return to Pittsburgh with his girlfriend. There is even a rather stupid scene where he harangues Cheech for being a monster by rubbing out Olive. It is a classic example of a scene that was written for Allen the performer.
Chazz Palminteri is easily the most solid performance in the film. It is a shame that the writers did not use him better. They could have tried for pathos but took the easy way out. So it is not a film that is either massively amusing or which plays with your emotions. It is a bit of a mis-fire.