NEW YORK — `I'LL Do Anything,'' an amusing satire of Hollywood and its denizens, has the most fascinating behind-the-scenes story so far this year.
Written and directed by James L. Brooks, whose credits include the popular ``Terms of Endearment'' and ``Broadcast News,'' it was planned as an old-style Hollywood entertainment with eight musical numbers. But a test screening indicated that the music interludes were weighing down the story's effectiveness, so Brooks postponed the picture's release for a couple of months - it was originally slated for the Christmas season - to do additional shooting and editing.
This piqued more curiosity than usual from the show-business press, which drummed up more interest than usual in the production's bottom-line question: Did its last-minute changeover transform it into a sleek and streamlined winner or into a reconstructed patchwork that's neither musical-comedy fish nor straight-comedy fowl?
The answer lies somewhere in between. ``I'll Do Anything'' is a likable picture with breezy dialogue and a couple of first-rate performances. Yet its atmosphere wobbles between comparative realism - moments when we're meant to be seriously caught up in the lives and loves of the characters - and stylized touches left over from its earlier incarnation as a song-and-dance movie.
While this inconsistency isn't disastrous, the film also has another problem, unrelated to the tribulations before its release. Brooks can't seem to decide whether his tongue-in-cheek depiction of the movie business is intended to skewer Hollywood unmercifully - as movies like ``The Player'' and ``All About Eve'' have memorably done - or to poke gentle fun while simultaneously depicting Tinseltown as a fairyland with a happy ending around every corner. There's a sense of indecision within ``I'll Do Anything'' that doesn't bode well for all-out success at the box office.
Nick Nolte plays the main character, a struggling actor with personal and professional problems. As if it weren't already hard to land meaningful roles in a business that values sex appeal over serious talent, his ex-wife gets arrested for financial skullduggery, and he inherits the time-consuming job of raising their six-year-old daughter.
He loves the child dearly, but he's ill-prepared for adding full-time fatherhood to his hectic and erratic schedule. Then she complicates their relationship further by succeeding at something he's never accomplished for himself: landing a juicy part in a TV series, which promises fame and fortune if she can only memorize her lines and learn to cry on cue.
If it were written more decisively and directed more smoothly, ``I'll Do Anything'' might do for Hollywood what the hilarious ``Broadcast News'' did for television - expose hypocrisy and deflate pomposity via sharply defined characters in clearly focused situations. As it stands, the new movie is a hit-or-miss affair, alternating moments of superbly conceived parody with underdeveloped scenes that promise more than they deliver. It generates some hearty laughs and intelligent observations, but its ambitions outstrip its achievements.
Nolte gives a skilled and amiable performance as the hero, and young Whittni Wright couldn't be more feisty as his bratty-but-adorable daughter.
The most memorable acting comes from Albert Brooks, though, as a money-driven producer who oscillates between comic peevishness (an Albert Brooks specialty) and uproarious outbursts of self-centered buffoonery. Julie Kavner is thoroughly winning as his girlfriend. Rounding out the cast with varying effectiveness are Tracey Ullman as the arrested ex-wife, Joely Richardson as an aspiring mogul, Angela Alvarado as a helpful neighbor, and Ian McKellen as a European filmmaker.
Michael Ballhaus did the cinematography, which is sometimes quite vivid and sometimes too pretty for its own good. Hans Zimmer composed the score, which drenches much of the action.
* ``I'll Do Anything'' has a PG-13 rating. It contains brief nudity, a sex scene, and some vulgar language.