'Hollywood Ending' is happy

The biggest surprise in this year's Oscar show wasn't a winner's name tucked in an envelope. It was the onstage appearance of Woody Allen, who's famous for avoiding celebrity events like this.

What brought him out of his shell? Was it the social importance of his segment, which celebrated his beloved New York with a montage of film clips?

Could be. But that doesn't explain why he's agreed to open the Cannes Film Festival this month, traipsing up the red carpet for the European première of his new picture, "Hollywood Ending," which debuts in US theaters today.

Maybe a new Woody persona is being born, trading camera-shy aloofness for crowd-friendly congeniality.

If so, it's a canny career move.

Allen's reclusive image had a certain mystique when he was making artistically ambitious pictures such as "Zelig" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors" years ago.

But from the director of recent throwaways like "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," it seemed simply pretentious.

More to the point, there's always been a fascinating overlap between Allen's onscreen and offscreen selves, and his efforts to keep these separate have never worked very well.

While the characters he plays aren't directly autobiographical, many have obvious roots in his own personality, and some of his '90s pictures ("Mighty Aphrodite," "Deconstructing Harry") have plot elements designed to rehabilitate his reputation after widely publicized scandals in his private life.

Maybe his new gregariousness marks a growing awareness that Allen the movie icon and Allen the human being inevitably merge in the public imagination, whether he wants them to or not.

And maybe he wants them to these days. "Hollywood Ending" plugs into all sorts of Allen issues, starting with the fact that it's about a director making a movie.

Not just any director, either. He's a once-lauded auteur whose reputation has declined, making him long for a mainstream hit to reestablish his importance and turn attention to his artistry rather than his up-and-down love life.

Could the once-lauded auteur of "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan," lately known for personal peccadilloes and forgettable films like "Celebrity," be trying to tell us something?

For the first few scenes, "Hollywood Ending" seems like a standard satire. We watch Allen's character, Val Waxman, accept a prime-grade project even though it's bankrolled by the man his ex-wife dumped him for.

We meet his money-minded agent, his untalented girlfriend, and a set designer who wants to rebuild the Empire State Building for the film.

Then things get interesting. Val is so consumed with anxiety over the movie that his subconscious mind goes haywire.

He loses his eyesight, and if anyone finds out he'll be fired. So he has to fool everyone in sight, pretending he really knows what's in front of the camera. This is a wild comedy idea, but it's not completely disconnected from reality. Allen himself is known as an anxious artist with a streak of hypochondria.

He's made some of the same decisions for his actual productions that Val makes here, like insisting on a foreign cameraman for a New York movie.

Allen is also noted for keeping the complete script away from his actors, asking them to take it on trust that the movie will make sense – rather like the "Hollywood Ending" characters who can't figure out what they're doing, but assume Val's talent will pull things together for the final cut.

Val manages to finish the movie, and – guess what? – it turns out to be a confused mess. He regains his sight, though, and then his discombobulated drama strikes French critics as an intellectual feast.

He becomes the new Jerry Lewis, scorned by smart Americans but acclaimed by European snobs.

"Hollywood Ending" has a happy ending after all. The movie is Allen's most successful in years, even if you don't see it as a self-made commentary on his own career.

Credit goes less to the comic dialogue than to the razor-sharp performances of an excellent cast including Téa Leoni as Val's ex-wife, Mark Rydell as his agent, George Hamilton and Treat Williams as studio execs, and Allen himself, playing a character he knows down to his bones.

• Rated PG-13; contains sexual humor.

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