Dying For A Broadway Hit

I'm an artist!'' yelps earnest play wright David Shayne (John Cusack), refusing to change a word of his new play. These are the first words we hear in Woody Allen's delicious Bullets Over Broadway, and they will come back to haunt David many times over by the time his Eugene O'Neill-ish melodrama has made its perilous progress to a Broadway opening night. Set in the roaring '20s, populated with tommy-gun-shooting gangsters, dumb chorus girls and theatrical grande dames, ""Bullets Over Broadway,'' co-written by Douglas McGrath, itself uses a classical theatrical structure to explore the conflicting -- and sometimes even deadly -- demands of art and morality. The joy of this bouncy, brainy Allen outing is how effortlessly he meshes his serious, clearly personal conundrums with the giddy formulas of backstage farce.

David will change more than a word to get his play mounted: his entire notion of what it takes to be an artist will undergo a rude transformation. His first compromise comes when backing is supplied by mobster Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli), on the condition that his singularly untalented, shriekingly nasal girlfriend Olive (Jennifer Tilly) gets cast in the play. She does -- as a psychiatrist. As his leading lady David lands the legendary Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), an alcoholic diva who wraps the narcissistic young playwright around her fingers and seduces him into giving her character a bit more ""color.'' Then there's affable Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent), an aging British stage idol with an unfortunate tendency, under stress, to overeat -- and a dangerous yen for the mobster's moll. Add to the mix the high-strung Eden Brent (Tracey Ullman), forever accompanied by her lap dog, and Allen has equipped himself with a volatile menagerie of Old Broadway stereotypes he can ignite to maximum comic effect.

Lurking in the back of the theater at rehearsals is the movie's surprising trump card -- a hood named Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), sent by Valenti to keep an eye on the flighty Olive. A coldblooded killer, he proves to be David's most astute critic, and an artistic collaborator in possession of a native genius that the pretentious, well-schooled David could never hope to emulate. It would spoil too much of the fun of Allen's tale to reveal more of Cheech's role. Let's just say the movie's most resonant and startling moments come out of Cheech and David's artistic shotgun wedding.

""An artist creates his own moral universe,'' says the unproduced Marxist playwright Flender (Rob Reiner), who is busy seducing David's girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker) while the success-obsessed writer is busy betraying her. ""Bullets Over Broadway'' takes this self-serving dictum to its ultimate black-comic conclusion, with results that are both hilarious and haunting. But whether one chooses to grasp on to the story's darker undertones or float along its bright, snappy surface, no recent Woody Allen movie has been so devoted to pleasuring its audience. The relish with which Wiest, Tilly, Broadbent, Palminteri, Ullman and Cusack feast upon their roles is contagious. This is ham cured and roasted to farcical perfection.