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Allen's 'Danny Rose' is funny the way movies used to be

By David Sterritt / February 9, 1984



Aside from his virtues as a writer, director, and comic actor, Woody Allen has evolved a production style all his own. While budgets climb and gimmicks escalate in Hollywood, he clings firmly to the basics.

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So it's not surprising that his latest picture - like others from ''Manhattan'' to ''Zelig'' - is a brief, uncluttered romp shot in no-nonsense black and white. It's also very funny in a way that movies used to be when they (and their critics) thought more about the laugh of the moment than their future niche in cinema history.

The hero of Broadway Danny Rose is a show-biz agent with a nose for unlikely talent. He works hard for his clients, convinced the world is itching for a good balloon-folding act and a woman who plays ''Begin the Beguine'' by rubbing crystal glasses. Inevitably, they fail. And he suffers with them - being too nice a guy to separate his business from his private life.

The plot takes off when the ''nostalgia craze'' hits and Danny's top singing act, a minor has-been, gets a shot at success. Trouble is, the conceited crooner has a girlfriend and can't perform up to par unless she's in the audience. But she wants nothing to do with her two-timing Romeo just now: ''He went out with some cheap blonde!'' shrieks this very cheap blonde, played to perfection by Mia Farrow.

No one but Broadway Danny Rose can save the day. So he drives to New Jersey, pleads for her help, meets the feisty (and somewhat shady) crowd she hangs out with, and winds up fleeing for his life with a couple of small-time hoods at his heels - so small-time he might have been their manager if they were in a different business.

It sounds like what it is: a modest, workable story for a modest, workable picture. And that's one of the things that make ''Broadway Danny Rose'' so likable. The film's very lack of presumption lifts it above the common run of noisy farces and pretentious romances so plentiful these days.

Its other key ingredient is Allen's immaculate craftsmanship. The screenplay is lean and spare, allowing little that's not essential into its running time of less than 90 minutes. The performances are crisp and economical - especially Allen's own portrayal of Danny, who's as wistful and likable as any other member of the growing Allen gallery.

Add the atmospheric cinematography by Gordon Willis; a friendly narrator who holds the tale together; a cameo appearance by the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, and you have a thoroughly enjoyable package.

My only quarrel with ''Broadway Danny Rose'' is that it indulges Allen's mean streak at times. This has surfaced before, especially in ''Stardust Memories,'' with its study of what critic Diane Jacobs calls ''the misanthropic inclinations of a famous man.'' It's not a major presence in the new picture, but it pokes through in too many jokes about physical handicaps and too many fallbacks on Jewish and Italian stereotypes.

Allen doesn't need these dubious laugh-getters, or the slightly jarring off-color references that push ''Broadway Danny Rose'' into PG territory. His uncommon artistry can soar above such common stuff. Motorcycle genre reworked

Willem Dafoe is one of the more energetic and inventive actors in the experimental wing of New York's theater scene. A mainstay of the aesthetically radical Wooster Group, he has enlivened many an evening of bravely unconventional (and uncommercial) stagecraft. Meanwhile, he has also been edging into a movie career, and I've been curious to see how he'd fare in Hollywood-type surroundings.

I almost got my chance in The Loveless, a revisionist motorcycle epic that never quite goes Hollywood even though it takes many of its cues from ''The Wild One'' and ''Easy Rider.'' Dafoe plays a laconic biker on a stopover in a sleepy town. While his sidekicks behave like the louts we expect in this kind of picture, he tools down empty roads, gazes morosely through dusty windows, has a dreary affair with a suicidal teen-ager, and tells us how nasty he's feeling in an ironic (I think) narration.

As near as I can tell, filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery wanted to rethink the motorcycle-movie genre, using its cliches and conventions as expressive devices - the message being, apparently, that existential angst is still alive and well. But the picture's pace is so listless, and its meaningful moments are separated by so much meandering, that the point nearly gets forgotten along the way.

Dafoe makes a strong impression as the moody main character, however, and if he can sustain his energy and presence in these hard circumstances he can probably do it anywhere. This is definitely a career to watch.