Woody Allen's comedies are to the 21st century what Cheech and Chong movies were to the early 1980s: redundant, interchangeable and extant only because their lead property was once at the vanguard of something or other. It's far too late in the game to complain that Allen's latest, "Hollywood Ending," is a half-assed revisitation of past triumphs; by now, that is the game.
This time calling himself Val Waxman, Allen plays yet another neurotic, hypochondriacal nebbish who directs films for a living. Given a career-saving shot at helming a big-budget studio picture, Waxman can't seem to keep his personal life out of the mix. How can he, when he owes the assignment to his ex-wife, Ellie (Tea Leoni), now the girlfriend of the oily studio exec (Treat Williams) who is in charge of the project?
Believing that a shriveled-up old codger like Waxman once got cozy with a hard-bodied corporate trophy is about as easy as swallowing his subsequent affair with a no-talent bombshell of an actress (Debra Messing), or suppressing one's gag reflex when another would-be starlet (Tiffani Thiessen of "Beverly Hills 90210") forces him to fondle her bosom. The only place on Earth where these scenarios make sense is the inside of Allen's mind.
The pressure of the shoot strikes Waxman temporarily blind, which is the star's cue to take numerous pratfalls and knock over stationary objects. (To feign sightlessness, Allen merely fixes his owl's eyes on some random object just out of the frame.) But it's also a fine excuse to pair Waxman with his new caretaker (Barney Cheng), a translator hired to help the director communicate with a cinematographer who only speaks Mandarin Chinese. (Don't ask.) The very funny Cheng is doubtless bound for even better things than playing the bespectacled Marcie to Allen's turkey-necked Peppermint Patty.
An Allen picture lives or dies on the basis of its one-liners, and he gets off a decent number of zingers in "Hollywood Ending". There are digs at fellow filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and the entire nation of France, both of which will be worthy targets from now until the end of time. But many of the better jokes come at their author's own expense. At one point, Waxman sums up more than his own station by wondering, "How did I go from the cutting edge to the buttering edge?" It's funny because it's true.