AT a key moment in Woody Allen's new movie, ``Bullets Over Broadway,'' the main character - a Roaring '20s playwright trying to pull off his first major production - decides he's not the artist he thought he was, but rather an entertainer who's better at pleasing the public than expressing the depths of his soul.
With all the public and private travails Allen has been through, it wouldn't be surprising if he wanted to give up personal expression in his own career, cranking out popular entertainments and lowering his profile as an intrepid explorer of the contemporary psyche. It's also undeniable that his more frivolous recent films, such as the much-praised ``Manhattan Murder Mystery,'' have drawn better responses than such heavy pictures as ``September'' and ``Another Woman,'' full of angst and gloom.
Add this together, and it's tempting to think the ``Bullets Over Broadway'' hero is acting out Allen's wish to chuck the high-seriousness game in favor of crowd-pleasing fluff. But the situation isn't that simple. For one thing, such above-average Allen films as ``Crimes and Misdemeanors'' and ``Hannah and Her Sisters'' resist labeling as either straight drama or light comedy, since they blend elements of both.
For another, ``Bullets Over Broadway'' itself has a notably serious side - suggesting that wholesome activities, like putting on Broadway plays, might call for unwholesome compromises, like accepting help from wealthy crooks.
For all its boisterous laughs, crazy characters, and loony situations, the movie is laced with interesting thoughts about the American way of art, business, and crime. If silliness seems to have displaced sobriety in most of the story, it's because Allen the thinker is holding Allen the clown in front of him like a ventriloquist's dummy.
As if bearing out the movie's hope to be taken seriously, the US premiere of ``Bullets Over Broadway'' marked Allen's first showing at the New York Film Festival.
The protagonist of the picture is David Shayne, a would-be dramatist who's determined to direct his latest play on the New York stage. Funding is elusive until his agent talks to a powerful mobster with (a) lots of money and (b) a girlfriend who's dying to move from chorus-line kicking to Broadway acting. The crook will finance the show if a key female role - a brainy psychiatrist - goes to Olive, his nearly illiterate lover.
David makes the fateful compromise and starts up rehearsals, whereupon two new shocks come his way. One is that the new actress's bodyguard, a murderous thug named Cheech, must oversee every step of the production to make sure his employer is well served.
The other is that Cheech has a talent for narrative, dialogue, and psychology that puts the playwright himself in the shade. David is embarrassed by this at first, but the play's success is what matters most, so before long he's eagerly accepting Cheech's rewrites - and wondering what solutions his brutish collaborator might have for other problems dogging the show, including the rotten performances Olive gives night after night.
The serious aspects of ``Bullets Over Broadway'' are anchored partly in David's dubious partnership with crime in the name of art, and partly in his conversations with a radical friend who thinks any attempt at artistic success is a shameful sellout to capitalist commercialism. Allen's interest in these matters is commendable, as is his willingness to explore them in what's otherwise an amusing farce.
The presence of Allen the thinker doesn't automatically mean his thoughts will be deep or profound, however, and it can't be said that ``Bullets Over Broadway'' delves very far into the issues it raises. At heart it's a lively little comedy that suffers from the same narrowness of vision found in most of Allen's earlier pictures.
For one example of this narrowness, after some 25 films he still seems only dimly aware of how social and economic factors help determine the development of people's lives; this allows him to resurrect that galling racial stereotype, the wisecracking black servant, to be a ``colorful'' background figure in ``Bullets Over Broadway'' as in ``The Purple Rose of Cairo'' a few years ago. Such second-rate nostalgia is no major sin in itself, but it indicates how limited Allen's artistry has remained in some respects.
In filmmaking terms, ``Bullets Over Broadway'' is crafted with Allen's usual finesse. John Cusack plays David with a whiny tone that effectively recalls Allen's own acting style. Jennifer Tilly gives the dreadful Olive a brassy charm that recalls such predecessors as Jean Hagen and Judy Holliday in various Hollywood classics.
Dianne Wiest and Tracey Ullman stand out as performers in the play-within-the-film. Chazz Palminteri is ideal as Cheech, and Rob Reiner is perfect as David's radical friend. Jack Warden, Joe Viterelli, Mary-Louise Parker, Harvey Fierstein, and Jim Broadbent round out the superbly chosen cast. Allen regulars carried out the key technical tasks - including cinematographer Carlo Di Palma and designer Santo Loquasto - and Allen wrote the screenplay with Douglas McGrath.
* ``Bullets Over Broadway'' is rated * for vulgar language and violence.