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MASTER OF THE COMEBACK

Every time you start hoping Dr. Kevorkian will pay a house call on Woody Allen, the filmmaker miraculously returns to form and gets everybody laughing again.

Witness Bullets Over Broadway, the third movie Allen has completed since The Troubles started. It's a Runyonesque farce combining Roaring Twenties theater folk, potato-nosed gangsters and dumb showgirls, and it's full of freshness and verve. Mercifully, it doesn't offer the gossipmongers many more hints about Allen's melodramatic personal life, and he doesn't appear in it--this is the first Woodyless Woodypic since 1990's Alice. Simpering Mia Farrow is also long gone, of course, but here's more good news: Diane Keaton and her whining act sit this one out, too.

As a result, the comedy rollicks along, and a cast that's blessedly free of close emotional attachments to the director gets every chance to do its best work.

John Cusack, a versatile actor with superb comic timing, inherits what would be the Woody Allen role: David Shayne is a young playwright whose head is stuffed with all sorts of bohemian pretensions about Life and Art but whose track record consists of two flops. Before skulking back to Pittsburgh, he gets one more shot at the Great White Way--thanks to a cleverly embroidered Broadway cliche. Nicky Valenti (Joe Viterelli), the kind of comic hood who wears a big hat and marks sentimental anniversaries by their proximity to leg-breakings he's performed, is also a dedicated patron of the arts. To wit: He will gladly bankroll David Shayne's next play as long as his screeching bimbo, Olive Neal, gets the role of the, uh, psychiatrist.

Allen's co-writer on Bullets is playwright and New Republic columnist Douglas McGrath, and the latter's calming influence is evident. The ancient play-within-a-movie ploy gives both writers license to come up with guys and dolls aplenty, but they're all just a little less neurotic than if Allen had been their sole creator. They're funnier, too.

Dianne Wiest, who's appeared in five Allen films (but never on his scrawny arm), anchors the works with her hilarious portrayal of one Helen Sinclair, a fading Broadway star with a dry martini clutched in each fist and some Norma Desmond-style delusions boggling her brain. From her cigarette holder to her insatiable taste for melodrama, Helen is the picture of temperamental self-absorption and, if you like, the personification of what divides stage acting and movie acting.

"Don't speak!" she commands, her eyes turned grandly to heaven. The line is repeated so often you get the suspicion Allen hopes it will become the next catchphrase in bookstores and at cocktail parties.

Jennifer Tilly also shines as the lamebrained moll in a cloak of pink feathers. "They want me to memorize all these lines," Olive carps to her henpecked tough guy, while the rest of the actors try to work around her. They include Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent), a British leading man whose notorious gluttony turns him into Moby Dick by opening night, and comedienne Tracey Ullman as an excitable ingenue clutching a yappy dog to her bosom.

They make up a vivid gallery of theater-world goofballs, but Allen reserves the sharpest jabs for his young playwright--the character that most resembles him. David Shayne is always spouting off to Greenwich Village friends and his weary agent (Jack Warden) about how he won't change a word of his latest masterpiece, but he's really a master equivocator. Every time a conniving leading lady bats an eyelash, he caves in, and in the movie's delicious central joke, it's Nicky Valenti's glowering bodyguard Cheech (Bronx phenom Chazz Palminteri) who winds up rewriting David's intellectual sludge as a smash hit.

In the meantime, various characters are getting bumped off backstage--a couple of them for aesthetic, rather than criminal, reasons. This is, I suppose, another of Allen's commentaries on the nature of art. Forget that. It works best as comedy, and Damon Runyon himself might appreciate the postmodern twist Allen and McGrath give to these overripe caricatures of the Jazz Age. The bottom line is that they're a lot of fun to be around.

Suddenly, so is Allen. He may not want to be put out of his misery any longer, and if he's even regained his form for good, we'll all be the richer for it. Let's see if he makes three or four more films as sharp and funny as this one. By then, nobody will give a damn who he's sleeping with.

 
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