Any coolness Hollywood may have showed Woody Allen as a result of his domestic situation is clearly at an end with seven Oscar nominations for this comedy of art representing a collective Tinseltown hug. They were also much deserved as this is a delightful diversion, if not one to get that hysterical about. As character rich as any of his comedies, it features another remarkable ensemble and an avalanche of brilliant gags.
In 1920s New York tortured playwright David (Cusack) accepts the backing of a gangland boss to put on one of his productions. But in return for his benevolence, Mr. Big wants a role for his screeching chorus girl moll Olive (Tilly). She is duly cast as a psychiatrist in David's turgid drama, alongside other eccentric players including Eden Brent (Tracey Ullman) and Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent), and the neurotic, over-the-top, over-the-hill leading lady Helen Sinclair (Wiest in her Oscar-winning role).
Wiest is screamingly funny as the fading Broadway diva who manipulates her awed writer-director at every turn, accelerating his betrayals of art and heart. Meanwhile, David's intellectual buddies - including Rob Reiner, ever useful as his wisecracking best friend - debate sex, love and creativity from their cafe table vantage point. The dizzying twist in this comic collision of Runyonesque gangsters, Greenwich Village pseuds and Broadway darlings is that the soul of the only true artist dwells in the least likely beast, as, lurking in the stalls, Olive's hoodlum minder (Palminteri) begins to make suggestions about improving the play.
Allen can't be topped at craftily insinuating ideas into wacky, witty scenarios, but this doesn't have the lingering satisfactions of an Annie Hall or Manhattan. For Allen buffs craving their annual fix of funnies, however, it teems with vividly beautiful period atmosphere, sparkling vignettes, wicked dialogue and detail, making it a charming, clever addition to his already considerable canon.