Val Waxman was the bomb, the cheese, a brilliant director on Hollywood’s A-list. Then his eccentricities and perfectionism began to intrude into his professional and personal life. Now, one career and divorce later, he’s reduced to shooting deodorant and Depends commercials (when he can get them). All seems doomed for the down-on-his-luck director until his ex-wife Ellie intervenes. Engaged to Hal, a high level Galaxie Films executive, Ellie champions for Val to direct The City That Never Sleeps, a gritty New York Mob drama. Val’s agent, Al, also steps up to the plate, assuring the powers-that-be that Waxman’s eccentricities and reputation for approaching films half-cocked will not intrude. Hal finally relents. Simultaneously exuberant and wracked with anxiety, Val falls asleep the weekend before the shoot begins, only to awake completely blind. Convinced by the doctor that the ailment is psychosomatic and his sight could return at any time, Al convinces him to direct the film anyway. After all, who would ever hire him if he abandoned the opportunity of a lifetime because of a psychological disorder? Chaos ensues in this biting satire of the movie industry.
positive elements: Ellie goes to bat for Val against a bevy of studio execs, convinced that he’s the best fit for The City That Never Sleeps despite his peculiarities. While occasionally played for laughs, Val and Ellie’s messy divorce is never glamorized. Even though she was involved in an adulterous relationship with Hal, Ellie decries marital unfaithfulness (albeit, hypocritically). While bickering over their breakup, Ellie declares that two-thirds of American marriages survive on inertia, to which Val responds that the rest thrive on love (one gets the impression that he wishes their union hadn’t been part of the majority). Val manages to restore his relationship with his pierced, tattooed, hard-rockin’ son, reaffirming the mutual love they hold for one another. At one point, Elle strongly chastises Hal for lying to Val.
As expected from the film’s title, Allen takes quite a few pointed jabs at Hollywood’s culture and the films it produces. Petty bickering, bloated egos and constant back-stabbing parade across the screen for the moviegoer’s careful consideration. Take Val’s flighty live-in girlfriend who aspires to be an actress yet refuses to take lessons because she’s convinced she's a natural and "classes would ruin her." Or the on-set reporter who aims to slaughter Val’s career while telling him how she always loved his work. Or Al and the studio exec who discuss their plastic surgeries and recommend doctors to one another while Val bumbles along blindly.
[Spoiler Warning] Actually, the most sharpest barbs are imbedded in the subject of Val’s blindness. As he fakes his way through the filming, the result is a predictable mess. But instead of deciding that he’s completely incompetent (as blindness would render any purveyor of a visual art), the cast and crew conclude he’s a wild new visionary, a celluloid genius. Only when the reporter accidentally unearths his secret and the public views the finished product does his career go down in flames. But then Woody Allen (wearing his director's hat) abruptly changes tack. In the final five minutes of the film, Hollywood Ending shifts from a stinging satire to a drippy melodrama. Val learns that the French adore his new movie and want him to make a second. He and Ellie are magically reunited and fly off to Paris, fulfilling their newlywed dream of living in France. Allen’s point? Hollywood isn’t committed to kindness, fairness or reality. They want their cash, they’ll trample on those who get in their way and they’ll feed audiences the basest pabulum as long as they’ll eat it.
spiritual content: Val interrupts his agent, Al, during a Jewish seder to inform him that he’s gone blind. When encouraging Val to go ahead with the movie despite his blindness, Al says, "Sometimes God works in strange ways," to which Val responds, "Like Job." Ellie says to Val, "Little did I know our marriage would become one of God’s practical jokes." Later, after she discovers he has directed three-fourths of the film while blind, she prays, "God, may the day June 16th rot in hell for all eternity" (June 16th is Val’s birthday).
sexual content: One only has to have a basic knowledge of Allen’s work to realize that sex plays a central role in much of his work. This film is no exception. In nearly every conversation with Elle, Val mentions some aspect of either their past sexual relationship and her current (extramarital) one with Hal. Recalling the early stages of the affair, he rants, "You were exchanging glances, then suddenly you were exchanging fluids!" He then asks Ellie why their marriage failed. "We didn’t communicate," she responds. "We had sex!" he yells. "But we didn’t talk!" she emphasizes. Val replies, "Sex is better than talking!" Such conversation about any number of sexual activities (including references to a threesome and masturbation) is constant. Val lives with his much younger girlfriend Lori, a tart who struts around in skin-tight, low-cut attire. Hal talks about a script with Ellie wherein two men invent a machine that can turn women back into virgins.
During a particularly uncomfortable scene, the voluptuous leading lady of The City That Never Sleeps has Val brought into her dressing room in order to seduce him, unaware that he’s blind. After opening her robe (she’s wearing lingerie) and placing his hand on her breast (he thinks it’s a pillow) she blurts, "If I trust a director to direct me, I trust him to make love to me." Val backpedals, claiming that he likes to "abstain" from such activity until after a film is done, so their professional relationship isn’t compromised. Mollified, she assents and says, "If I trust a director, there’s nothing I wouldn't do sexually for him." Val replies, "You’ll never lack work in this town."
violent content: Val plummets off a scaffold when he makes a misstep. A couple scenes in The City That Never Sleeps involve bloodless gunshots and slaps. Val alludes to his son pushing him down the stairs after a strident conversation about music. His son insists he ate a live rat during one of his hard rock shows.
crude or profane language: Characters use God and Jesus’ names in vain over 30 cringe-inducing times. There are fewer than five other mild profanities.
drug and alcohol content: In order to combat his psychological disorders, Val pops pill after pill, mixing as many as four medications at a time. Interestingly, Val’s son blames his experimentation with drugs on his father’s example and regrets that he ever used them. "Those days are over," he states. "They were very stupid." He still smokes, however. After an award dinner in Hal’s honor, Ellie realizes they are both drunk and wishes they wouldn't imbibe so much at such events.
other negative elements: Allen’s characters prove themselves so dysfunctional that any redemptive aspect of their relationships gets colored by their quirkiness. Take Val’s interaction with his son. At the end of their conversation he says, "I love you, Tony." His son expresses his thanks, but informs Dad that his name is now Scumbag X. "I love you, Scumbag," Val very seriously responds. Plus, the creepiness quotient goes off the charts as you watch Allen's character romantically interact with women less than half his age, twitches, stutters and all.
conclusion: From What’s Up, Tigerlily? to The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen has shown himself to be unafraid of skewering Hollywood where it needs to be skewered. His critiques of Tinseltown are gratifyingly sharp and witty. It’s a shame that overactive libidos and blasphemous uses of God’s name spoil the show.